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Fascinating piece in the New York Times over the weekend about lawsuits that concerns meatballs tainted with E. coli bacteria that were served and consumed at a Minnesota church picnic back in 2006, and that allegedly made s many as 17 people sick and killed one elderly woman.

Now, as might be expected, the company that made the beef that went into the meatballs, Nebraska Beef, is being sued. That’s not the lawsuit that got the attention of the Times. No, the lawsuit generating so much interest is the lawsuit that has been filed by Nebraska Beef against the Salem Lutheran Church, charging that the volunteer church ladies who made the meatballs did not follow proper food safety procedures and were responsible for the illnesses and death.

According to the Times, “The case dates back to July 17, 2006, when members of the church bought about 40 pounds of ground beef and 20 pounds of ground pork at the local grocery store, Tabaka’s Super Valu. The next day, about 20 church volunteers spent two hours preparing for a smorgasbord that was to be held the day after that.

“The meatballs were made in a mixer in a center island in the church kitchen; the cooks wore gloves while making the meatballs. The volunteers also cooked turkeys, sliced ham, prepared a mashed-potato dish and a carrot salad, and chopped eggs and potatoes for a potato salad.

“But according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Health, the ladies of Salem Lutheran Church didn’t do everything right, from a food-safety perspective. There are three sinks in the kitchen, one for hand-washing and two for food preparation, but all three were used for hand-washing, the report said.

“And when the meatballs came out of the oven, it added, the cooks didn’t pull out a meat thermometer to make sure they were cooked to the correct temperature. Instead, they cut a few open and determined that they were done, the report found.

“In Nebraska Beef’s complaint against the church, the company’s lawyer, Gary J. Gordon, cites the health department’s report that ‘there was a high potential of contamination between ground beef and other food during food preparation.’ He also said that the problems were entirely ‘the direct and proximate result of the negligence’ of the church.”

The church has responded to the suit by saying that the little old ladies who made the meatballs have about 500 years of cooking experience among them, and that this is the first time that anyone has died from their cooking.

The lawyer for Nebraska beef, however, isn’t impressed. Gary Gordon tells the times that the picnic was a money-making project for the church that doesn’t deserve special treatment. “When you are running it as a money-making venture, why should you be any different from McDonald’s?” Gordon said. “Nobody is suing the old ladies, to use your term.”

KC's View:
Gordon and Nebraska Beef may not think they are suing the old ladies, but they are…and you have to figure that the church attorney is going to line all of them up in court as a way of making the jury feel that it is their grandmothers being victimized here.

It seems to me that a pretty good rule of litigation ought to be that you should try never to sue old ladies or a church.

I cannot imagine that there wasn't a way to settle this case without going to court. That said, the trial ought to be something to see.