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Jury to Decide Dairy's Role in Crisis

June 26, 1989|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles County Superior Court jury, in a trial that started last week, will attempt to solve a mystery that has stymied the best medical investigators in the nation: Exactly how did deadly listeria bacteria get into a batch of cheese that sickened hundreds of Southern Californians, killing 48 in 1985?

The decision will hinge on the past performance of two firms--the now-defunct Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. of Artesia, which produced the tainted cheese, and Alta-Dena Certified Dairy of the City of Industry, which supplied the raw milk to Jalisco to make the cheese.

In a lawsuit by Jalisco's former owner, the jury will attempt to determine whether Alta-Dena should share liability for an estimated $100 million in claims filed by victims of the listeriosis epidemic.

Not Nailed Down

State and federal epidemiologists, microbiologists and food scientists have never been able to nail down whether the bacterial contamination came from Alta-Dena's raw milk or from sloppy pasteurization methods and filthy conditions at the cheese plant.

The verdict will determine whether families of people who died, had children born with birth defects or suffered stomach ailments receive full compensation, said Kim Miller, an attorney for these plaintiffs who are watching from the sidelines as Alta-Dena's attorneys battle claims in a lawsuit brought by Jalisco. Several supermarkets that sold the cheese also are among the plaintiffs.

"Due to the limited nature of funds available from Jalisco," Miller said in a telephone interview, "a number of people involved in litigation are not going to get full compensation for their injuries and the death of loved ones unless Alta-Dena is found responsible."

One of the plaintiffs is Rosalie Szlasa, whose daughter--now 3--was born prematurely, blind and with cerebral palsy.

Szlasa was pregnant Jan. 1, 1986, when she ate a bowl of homemade soup containing Jalisco cheese, according to court documents. Ten days later, she experienced a stiff neck and severe flu-like symptoms. On March 16, she began showing signs of hemorrhaging and an early miscarriage. She was taken to Tarzana Hospital, where an emergency Cesarean was performed.

If the jury finds Alta-Dena partially responsible for the listeriosis outbreak, then a separate jury will determine the extent of financial liability for the former owners of California's largest dairy, which was sold in February to a company based in France.

Only then will the victims of the epidemic have their day in court. There are expected to be numerous separate trials at which attorneys will seek damages for people who suffered personal injuries or death from the tainted cheese, Miller said.

142 Cases Counted

An investigation led by researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta counted 142 cases of listeriosis between Jan. 1 and Aug. 15, 1985. The deaths included 20 fetuses, 10 newborns and 18 adults.

Jalisco owner Gary McPherson and cheese maker Jose Luis Medina both pleaded no contest in 1986 to misdemeanor criminal charges. They were sentenced to 30 days and 60 days, respectively, in Los Angeles County Jail and fined a total of about $48,000.

Attorneys on each side of the trial, presided over by Superior Court Judge Richard Lavine, have lined up a parade of experts who will testify that either Jalisco or Alta-Dena is to blame for the deadly concentrations of listeria that showed up in Jalisco's Mexican-style soft cheese produced between 1984 and 1985.

All the experts agree on one point: Listeria bacteria exists in small, usually nonlethal amounts nearly everywhere--in food, air, water and even healthy people. In certain concentrations, however, it can be lethal.

"Alta-Dena sold to Jalisco a product that contained Listeria monocytogenese, " Jalisco attorney Roy Brisbois said in his opening remarks to the jury, "and Alta-Dena is partly responsible for this epidemic."

Brisbois told the jury that the same strain of listeria that contaminated the cheese was found, after the outbreak, in a carton of Alta-Dena sour cream taken from a truck at a local dump and in a tub of caseinate--which is used to make sour cream--taken from an Alta-Dena warehouse.

It was also discovered in a sample of body fluid taken from an elderly man who subsisted almost entirely on Alta-Dena raw milk before he died of cancer in July, 1982, Brisbois said. Although the incident predates the listeriosis outbreak by nearly three years, health officials say it constitutes direct evidence to back up the discovery later of listeria in the carton of Alta-Dena sour cream.

Key Witness for Jalisco

One of the first to testify in the trial was epidemiologist Laurene Mascola, a former employee of the federal Centers for Disease Control, who was stationed in Los Angeles at the time of the outbreak. Mascola is a key witness for Jalisco.

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