Jimmy John’s franchisee could have to pay punitive damages in E. coli case

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A man who was sickened by contaminated sprouts on a Jimmy John’s sandwich has been given permission by a Utah judge to seek punitive damages in a case related to his 2020 illness.

Travis Knorr and his wife Aimee Knorr filed the civil case in Utah’s Third Judicial District Court in Salt Lake City on March 31, 2020, seeking compensatory damages for medical costs and other direct costs from Travis Knorr’s E. coli O103:H2 infection.

His illness was determined to be part of a nationwide outbreak that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said was traced to raw sprouts served by Jimmy John’s restaurants. The CDC reported 51 people as confirmed infected across 10 states. Three people were so sick they had to be admitted to hospitals, including Knorr.

Travis Knorr is a 46-year-old training director with the Utah Department of Corrections. He ate a Jimmy John’s sandwich with fresh sprouts on Feb. 21, 2020, and became ill on Feb. 26. He had severe diarrhea and had to leave work on Feb. 28. Ultimately he tested positive for E. coli.

Travis provided a stool specimen on March 3, 2020, and LabCorp reported preliminary results on March 5. His stool was confirmed positive for E. coli Shiga Toxin (STEC) by EIA testing. He eventually developed a C. difficile infection and required a fecal transplant. 

In a ruling this week Judge Douglas Hogan granted the Knorrs’ motion to also seek punitive damages in addition to the compensatory damages. It is relatively rare for punitive damages to be part of a food poisoning case, according to one of the couple’s attorneys, Bill Marler.

Under Utah law punitive damages are designed to punish the plaintiff in a lawsuit for knowing disregard. They also serve as a deterrent to discourage other entities from acting in the same manner.

“It will be up to the jury to decide the damages, regular and punitive. But the judge doesn’t have to do what the jury recommends,” Marler said. “Punitive damages are usually proportionate to compensatory damages but are generally not more than 10 times the amount of compensatory damages.”

Regular damages in the Knorr case could be upwards of $250,000, but those damage amounts have not been specified by Knorr’s attorneys. A trial date has been set for February 2020.

The franchisee named as the defendant in the case is Dwight & Linford Enterprises LLC, D/B/A Jimmy John’s, a Utah corporation. The case against the franchisee illustrates one of almost 80 outbreaks linked to sprouts served by Jimmy John’s restaurants across the country going back to 1973, according to documents from Benjamin Chapman, a fresh produce expert and food pathogen researcher from North Carolina State University.

“It’s past time for Jimmy John’s to pay attention to this problem,” said Marler of the overall issues with sprouts served by the restaurants across the country. “This is about behavior over time. It’s moved from ‘gee it was a mistake’ to egregious behavior.”

The judge agreed with the Knorrs’ request to seek punitive damages, saying that “although a franchisee may have taken some actions that contribute to plaintiff’s injuries, many of those same actions can rightly be ascribed to Dwight & Linford as well.

“These include failure to take the contaminated sprouts off the menu, failure to practice good risk communication toward customers, and failure to provide adequate resources to food handlers to control the cross-contamination of sprouts,” the judge continued in his granting of the Knorr’s request to seek punitive damages.

“As to Dwight & Linford’s contention that punitive damages are not supported by the evidence, in this case, plaintiffs point to these and other actions, as well as the expert opinion of Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D., to refute this claim. . . 

“Finally, plaintiffs cite Utah Code, which states that punitive damages are appropriate when the acts or omissions of the defendant are the results of ‘conduct that manifests a knowing and reckless indifference toward, or disregard of the rights of others.’ “

Editor’s note: Attorney Bill Marler is the publisher of Food Safety News.

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