The family of a Rochester woman who died after eating a tainted caramel apple is suing those who made and supplied the classic dessert item, claiming they didn’t take appropriate steps to protect her from a deadly pathogen.
The lawsuit, filed this month in Ramsey County, is the second in Minnesota involving one of the nation’s worst outbreaks of listeriosis in recent years. Altogether, 34 people were hospitalized and seven people died from eating apples contaminated with listeria, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Beatrice Stewart died in November 2014, five days after she was hospitalized for symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue, according to the lawsuit. Doctors discovered that she was dying from a listeria-related infection and notified the state health department, which initiated an investigation of the outbreak, according to the lawsuit.
Investigators determined that Stewart, who was 83, bought a contaminated caramel apple from a Kwik Trip convenience store. In the lawsuit, Kwik Trip is accused of negligence for failing to refrigerate its caramel apples.
Refrigeration can’t prevent listeria, but it can significantly slow the growth of the pathogen, making fresh grocery items safer, according to Minneapolis attorney Brendan Flaherty, who represents Stewart and other victims of the outbreak.
“Certain retailers have changed their policies regarding refrigeration because of this,” Flaherty said.
A Kwik Trip spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Robert Spear, a retired electrical engineer from St. Paul Park, said he is still dealing with the lingering effects three years after he bought a pack of four caramel apples from a Cub Foods store in Cottage Grove.
“I almost died,” said Spear, who settled his lawsuit against Cub Foods and several other companies last year. “I lost my ability to write. I lost my ability to walk normally because of the vertigo. I had to teach myself how to do a lot of things again.”
A Cub Foods spokesman declined to comment.
After the outbreak was first detected in 2014, Bidart Bros. voluntarily recalled Granny Smith and Gala apples because testing showed listeria contamination at the company’s apple-packing facility in California. At the time, a company executive described the findings as “devastating to the Bidart family” and emphasized the company’s commitment to food safety. In court, Bidart has denied any wrongdoing.
According to the two Minnesota lawsuits, the caramel apples that sickened Spear and Stewart came from Bidart and wound up at H. Brooks and Co., a New Brighton business whose popular Carnival line of caramel apples is sold in local grocery stores and at the State Fair. H. Brooks and an affiliate, the Excellence Co., were accused of negligence for failing to test the apples for contaminants before reselling them to others.
“We are unable to comment on pending litigation, but I do want consumers, their families and our community to know that H. Brooks and Co. and Excellence are third-generation, family-owned companies and we work hard every day to provide safe, high quality products,” company CEO Phillip Brooks said in a written statement. “Our hearts go out to everyone who was affected by this 2014 listeria outbreak.”
Listeriosis is a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The disease affects mostly older adults, pregnant women, newborns and persons with weakened immune systems. In Minnesota, all of the victims of the 2014 outbreaks were adults ages 59 to 90, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Spear, 80, said he will have to take antibiotics twice daily for the rest of his life to prevent a flare-up of the infection that nearly killed him.
“My vertigo is so bad I can’t pull a shirt over my head without having my hands on something,” Spear said. “I can’t even look at a car that is passing me.”
Despite his health problems, Spear — a lifetime caramel apple lover — said one thing remains unchanged.
“I am back to eating caramel apples,” he said.