CHARLESTON - There is very little to be found at the Coronet Foods, Inc., plant these days - which is both good and bad for Pittsburgh attorney Eric Anderson.
The Wheeling-based company filed for bankruptcy 17 months ago and has since ceased operation. More than 200 people lost their jobs, and Anderson is now faced with the challenge of defending a company that no longer exists as he attempts to stave off liability in several lawsuits claiming tomatoes supplied by Coronet to Sheetz contained salmonella bacteria.
But finding nothing in the plant can be a positive for Anderson -- on a microscopic level.
"The (Food and Drug Administration) checked the Coronet plant and found that there was nothing wrong with the plant that could have caused salmonella to develop in these tomatoes," said Anderson, of the law firm Meyer, Darrah, Buckler, Bebenek and Eck.
"I don't think there's any doubt in anyone's mind that the tomatoes were contaminated when they were received by Coronet. It's just a matter of trying to track down which one of the suppliers it was."
Analysis was done on samples taken from equipment, floors, walls, drains and ceilings at the Coronet plant. Water samples also passed.
But that bit of good news wasn't enough to save Coronet's business, though. The plant shut down in Dec. 2004.
Anderson admits that representing a company that has gone bankrupt is difficult, but he is confident that the insurance companies that covered Coronet will not have to pay settlements on the coming wave of Sheetz litigation. Seattle attorney William Marler says 148 cases will soon be filed in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland.
Coronet received Roma tomatoes from two different suppliers, Consumer Produce and Procacci Brothers, and it will be up to the FDA to determine which supplier caused the salmonella outbreak, Anderson said.
Though, he admits, there are no smoking guns available - or rotten tomatoes left over- when it comes to food-born illnesses.
"One of the problems with food-born illness is the case is generally determined after an outbreak of illness related to food," Anderson said. "All the food is gone then. We don't have a direct line or smoking-gun evidence."
What isn't available, Anderson added, is proof positive.
"(Marler) has to prove that his clients fell ill from a product that came from Sheetz," he said. "Right now, there isn't any evidence with a situation where a client bought a sandwich containing tomatoes, got sick and had the rest of the sandwich sent to be tested for salmonella.
"That's the burden he has to get over before he establishes liability."
Anderson cited U.S. Air as a positive example of a company that filed for bankruptcy to protect itself against creditors, then was able to sustain operation in order to come up with a plan to pay them.
Coronet, he said, wasn't so fortunate.
"There is insurance to cover some of these lawsuits," he said. "It wasn't Coronet's fault. There was a chain of distribution, and Coronet got supposedly bad tomatoes."