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Food Product Liability in Maine

sandwich-1423647-m.jpgManufacturers have a responsibility to consumers not to produce defective and dangerous products in Maine. Product liability cases cover a wide array of products, everything from cars to children’s toys, from beds to food. Food product liability can be more serious than it sounds, including such events as food poisoning in school lunches, beverages that are too hot, or biting into a hamburger or salad that has glass or another potentially harmful substance inside it.

In a 2012 case, a man was eating a turkey sandwich during a break from his work as a line cook at a truck stop restaurant. Cargill manufactured the boneless turkey in the sandwich. While eating the sandwich, the man had a severe pain in his abdomen and was taken to the hospital where a doctor determined he probably had an esophageal tear.

A gastroenterologist performed an upper endoscopy and found a tiny tear in his esophagus and fragments of something bony there. A thoracic surgeon repaired the tear. The gastroenterologist testified at deposition that he thought the tear was a perforation secondary to a foreign body (as opposed to a pre-existing condition). He attributed the tearing to a foreign body or aggressive retching.

The man died for reasons unrelated to the turkey sandwich episode. His estate filed a complaint against the manufacturer on the basis of Maine’s defective or unreasonably dangerous goods law. The manufacturer filed for summary judgment, noting among other things that the deceased had trouble swallowing before he ate the turkey sandwich.

In opposition, the Estate used three pieces of evidence, including affidavits from the man’s widow and his daughter. In the affidavits, the daughter and wife said that a doctor had told them immediately after surgery that fragments caused the injury. The court found these to be hearsay and ruled them inadmissible. It also ruled as inadmissible a transcript of the deceased’s conversation with an insurance adjuster.

The court granted the manufacturer’s summary judgment motion and noted that before a strict liability statute was enacted in Maine, courts used a test related to the test for implied warranty of merchantability. The judge reasoned that since bone is naturally in turkey and the average consumer might be expected to find bone fragments, the finding of bone fragments in the deceased’s esophagus didn’t show the product was defective as a matter of law.

The Estate appealed. It argued first that it had provided enough evidence to create issues of material fact as to whether the bone had caused the deceased’s injury and whether the product was defective. It argued next that the court had erred in reasoning the Estate couldn’t benefit from an inference of defective product.

The appellate court discussed the two tests related to defective food products. The first test (the “foreign-natural” test) states there is no liability if a food product is natural to the ingredients. The “reasonable expectation test” provides that there is liability if a consumer wouldn’t have reasonably expected to find a particular substance in the product, even if the substance is a natural component of the food product.

The appellate court reasoned that a defective condition is a product in a condition that can’t be anticipated by the consumer and is dangerous beyond what an ordinary consumer would expect. It adopted the reasonable expectation test for Maine. It reversed the lower court, finding among other things that whether a consumer would reasonably expect a bone fragment in a boneless turkey product was an issue for the jury.

If you have been injured as a result of a dangerous or defective product, contact the Maine personal injury lawyers at Briggs & Wholey, LLC by phone or via our online form for a free consultation.

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Study Claims Drivers in Maine and Across the U.S. Are Distracted More Than They Realize, Maine Personal Injury Lawyers Blog, June 13, 2013
One Hurt in Negligent York County Traffic Wreck, Maine Personal Injury Lawyers Blog, June 7, 2013