Court of Appeals Affirms Defense Verdict in Massachusetts Product Liability Case Against Maker of School Meatballs Upon Which Child Allegedly Choked

A Cape Cod product liability case can arise from many different types of products and can involve several different theories of liability. Claims of strict liability, negligence, defective design, manufacturing defect, breach of warranty, or failure to warn may be alleged, depending on the circumstances. Since product liability lawsuits are subject to both a statute of limitations and a statute of repose, it is important to get legal advice concerning your case as soon as possible. Claims not filed in a timely fashion are usually dismissed, regardless of the severity of the plaintiff’s injuries.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently under consideration by the appellate court, the plaintiff was a public school first grader who allegedly suffered traumatic brain damage after choking on meatballs served in the school cafeteria. Together with his parents, the student filed suit against the city that owned the school and the company that produced and sold the meatballs, alleging, among other things, that the meatballs contained “Profam 974,” which gave them an unreasonably dangerous texture and presented a choking hazard. The plaintiffs’ legal theories included negligence and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the city based on governmental immunity under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, and the case proceeded to a 17-day jury trial against the company that made the meatballs. After the jury returned a defense verdict, the plaintiffs appealed, arguing that they were prejudiced by the trial court’s denial of their request for a jury instruction regarding the company’s alleged spoliation of documentary evidence. The plaintiffs also challenged the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the city.

Decision of the Court

The Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s orders awarding summary judgment to the city and entering judgment on the jury’s verdict in favor of the company. The plaintiffs had asked the trial court to award sanctions against the company for its alleged spoliation of certain 2004 records pertaining to the development and testing of the meatballs on which the child choked, but the trial court deferred its ruling on the motion until it could hear the evidence regarding the missing materials. Under Massachusetts law, a judge can only impose sanctions for spoliation when a litigant negligently or intentionally destroys or loses evidence that the litigant knows might be relevant to a possible legal action.

Since the plaintiffs offered no evidence regarding when the documents at issue went missing, the appellate court found that the plaintiffs could not show that the documents were destroyed or lost at a time when the company either knew or should have known of their potential legal significance. Thus, the trial judge did not violate his discretion in denying the spoliation instruction as a sanction against the company.

The appeals court also agreed with the trial court’s decision regarding summary judgment in favor of the city, holding that the plaintiffs had no reasonable expectation of proving negligence on either the ground that the city had served an unreasonably dangerous food product to school-aged children or the ground that it had failed to adequately supervise the students in the cafeteria. In so holding, the court noted that the meatballs were approved for the National School Lunch Program by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Schedule a Free Consultation with a Cape Cod Injury Attorney

When a person is injured or killed due to a defective product, including food items, he or she may be able to pursue a lawsuit against the person or business whose negligence or other wrongful actions resulted in harm or death to the victim. To talk with an experienced Cape Cod food injury attorney about your case, call the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, in Hyannis or Plymouth today at 888-262-6664. There is no charge for the appointment, and there is no obligation to pursue your case if you choose not to do so after speaking with one of our attorneys.

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