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The “Meatball Case” – Defense Verdict in Product Liability Action

On Behalf of | Sep 1, 2022 | Cases, Insurance Defense

Attorney Christopher Sullivan Successfully Defends Rich Products in Multi-Million Dollar Negligence and Breach of Warranty Suit

In April, 2014, a Middlesex County Jury returned a defense verdict in favor of Rich Products Corporation (“Rich”) after a nearly month long trial in Santiago v. Rich Products Corp. Plaintiff alleged that meatballs manufactured by Rich for the Child Nutrition Program, and served in Lowell Public Schools, were unreasonably dangerous and caused the minor Plaintiff to choke, resulting in profound brain damage and permanent disability. The Plaintiff, Mr. Santiago, incurred over $1,800,000.00 in medical bills, an estimated $12,000,000.00 in future medicals and in excess of $1,200,000.00 in alleged lost earning capacity. Together with Attorney Lawrence Kenney of Sloane & Walsh, Sullivan & Associates Attorney Christopher Sullivan showed the jury that Rich was not responsible for this terrible accident which occurred while Mr. Santiago, age seven at the time, was engaged in a meatball eating race in his elementary school cafeteria.

This case received some notoriety due to the novel theory of liability put forth by the Plaintiff: that while most meatballs contain soy in some form, the Soy Protein Isolate (SPI) used in Rich’s meatball to increase protein and reduce fat, created a tougher and chewier meatball than meatballs not using SPI. Plaintiff called two food scientists; a warnings expert and a pediatric choking expert who testified that Rich’s unique formula and the reasonably foreseeable conduct of the minor Plaintiff contributed to this tragic accident. Plaintiff further alleged that the meatball was the perfect size and shape to block a child’s trachea and therefore increased the choking hazard. Finally, Plaintiff claimed that Rich failed to properly warn of potential choking hazards by not placing a warning on the meatball package similar to warnings that some hot dog manufacturers voluntarily place on their packaging.

Also of note is that the Court granted Rich’s motion to bifurcate. This appears to be one of the first successful motions in Massachusetts to bifurcate a products liability trial (involving only one defendant) into liability and damages phases. The damages phase became unnecessary after the jury’s defense verdict on liability. While bifurcation into liability and damages phases is routine in other states such as New York, this strategy has rarely been successfully used in a single defendant products liability action in Massachusetts before.

In addition to filing suit against Rich, the manufacturer, Plaintiff’s attorneys also sued the City of Lowell and the ambulance company that responded to the 911 call. Following an extended discovery period (in which Plaintiff’s attorneys were given numerous extensions to conduct testing and no fewer than 57 depositions were taken), the City of Lowell was granted summary judgment under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), which prohibits suits against municipalities over discretionary functions. Plaintiff argued the lack of supervision in the cafeteria was a cause of the accident, but the court ruled that the number of adults assigned to supervise was a discretionary function and therefore precluded liability against the school under the MTCA. The ambulance company settled well before trial and Rich was left as the sole defendant at trial.

The Plaintiff’s elementary school was a chaotic place on the day of the accident. Upper level staff was away from the school for a variety of reasons; the principal was in the emergency room due to a school related incident, the vice principal was out sick and other supervisory administrators were unavailable. The ensuing breakdown in the chain of command resulted in a delay in calling 911. Mr. Santiago was unresponsive by the time an ambulance arrived. Paramedics eventually cleared Mr. Santiago’s trachea and got him breathing, then transported him to a local hospital. However, the lack of oxygen suffered while choking, sadly caused permanent, irreversible brain damage and rendered Mr. Santiago a quadriplegic, blind and unable to speak, eat or perform other normal functions.

When they noticed Mr. Santiago was choking, teachers on duty first slapped him on the back and then twice attempted the Heimlich maneuver in their ultimately unsuccessful efforts to dislodge the meatball. Defense expert witnesses utilizing instrument testing and trained test panel analysis rebutted Plaintiff’s expert witnesses’ testimony that the Defendant’s meat product was unreasonably tough, chewy and constituted a choking hazard. After one full day of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Defendant. April, 2014