Wrongful Death Suit Filed in Caramel Apple Listeria Outbreak

California woman died after eating listeria-tainted caramel apple.

BySYDNEY LUPKIN
December 23, 2014, 5:20 PM

— -- The family of a woman who died after eating a caramel apple allegedly tainted with listeria is suing those it says are responsible, including the grocery store her family says sold the apple to her.

Shirlee Jean Frey, 81, bought a prepackaged caramel apple at the Safeway grocery store in Felton, California, shortly before Halloween, according to the wrongful death lawsuit filed by food safety lawyer Bill Marler and his colleagues. Frey ate it that week, and began to feel sick, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says that because of Frey's illness, she fell and hit her head on Nov. 6, prompting a visit to the local emergency room and a flight to Stanford Hospital, where she had surgery on what doctors suspected was a brain bleed, according to a statement from Marler's firm. She was discharged for rehabilitation on Nov. 14, and her health appeared to be improving, according to the lawsuit.

Then, on Thanksgiving, Frey would not wake up, the suit noted.

At Stanford Hospital, doctors told Frey's family on Dec. 2 that she had listeria infection, and she died later that day, according to the wrongful death complaint.

"Listeria is a brutal illness, but it is completely preventable," Marler said in a statement. "It is sickening and shocking when outbreaks like this one occur as it means the most basic precautions were not taken."

Health officials told the family later that month that Frey was a victim of the multi-state listeria outbreak tied to prepackaged caramel apples, according to a statement from Marler's firm.

"Since this is a pending lawsuit, we are not in a position to comment about the case," said Safeway spokesman Brian Dowling. "The product was supplied to us by a third party, and we are looking into this matter further. We were previously unaware of any issue as it relates to the specific sale of this product at our stores. We have removed the product from sale."

As of Dec. 22, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 29 hospitalizations as a result of listeria linked to caramel apples in 10 states. Five people died, according to the CDC, and this includes Frey, Marler said.

The people infected in this outbreak ranged from age 7 to 92, according to the CDC. Nine cases occurred in pregnant women, and three cases caused meningitis -- or the dangerous inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

Listeria infection, called listeriosis, is caused by ingesting the bacteria listeria monocytogenes. It is especially dangerous to elderly people, pregnant women and people who have compromised immune systems. Its symptoms include gastrointestinal distress, fever and muscle aches.

Out of an abundance of caution, the CDC warned all consumers this month to avoid eating prepackaged caramel apples while they investigate the outbreak alongside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state health organizations.

Although the CDC has not named a caramel apple brand and is still investigating, it said 87 percent of the victims it interviewed reported having eaten a prepackaged caramel apple before falling ill. And no listeria cases have been identified in people who have eaten caramel alone or apples without caramel coating.

ABC News' Gillian Mohney contributed to this report.

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