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Daughter sues Kwik Trip, others over mother's fatal food poisoning

ST. PAUL — A Rochester, Minnesota, woman's daughter is suing five companies — including Minnesota-based Excellence Co. and Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip — because the woman died from eating a caramel apple contaminated with a food-borne pathogen.

Beatrice Stewart, an 83-year-old woman who lived in Rochester, purchased the apple at a Kwik Trip in November 2014. She became sick Nov. 22 and died five days later from listeria monocytogenes sepsis, an often deadly disease that the elderly are particularly vulnerable to.

Rochelle Kozera, Stewart's daughter as well as her trustee for heirs and next of kin, is asking for at least $50,000 in the wrongful death case, which was filed in Ramsey County District Court. In addition to Kwik Trip and Excellence, Kozera is also suing California companies Bidart Bros. and PureFresh Sales and Delaware-based H. Brooks Co.

Kwik Trip, based in La Crosse, said it takes food safety and public health very seriously.

"Based on the fact that Kwik Trip Inc. does not grow, process or manufacture caramel apples, we are confident that once the judicial review process is completed, it will show that Kwik Trip Inc. was not liable or negligent in this very unfortunate 2014 multistate caramel apple foodborne illness event," Jay L. E. Ellingson, Kwik Trip's senior director of food regulations, said in a statement.

Philip Brooks, CEO of H. Brooks and Excellence, said he could not comment on the pending litigation.

"But I do want consumers, their families and our community to know that H. Brooks and Company and Excellence are third-generation, family-owned companies and we work hard every day to provide safe, high quality products," Brooks said in a written statement Friday. "Our hearts go out to everyone who was affected by this 2014 listeria outbreak."

As of February 2015, 35 people from 12 different states had been infected by outbreak strains of listeria monocytogenes, according to the lawsuit, and seven had died.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigated the origin of the outbreak and traced it back to Bidart Bros., according to the lawsuit.

"Presence of listeria on the production line of any ready-to-eat food is a highly dangerous, but preventable, food safety violation," the lawsuit said.

Bidart recalled all Granny Smith apples that had been used to make caramel apples in December 2015, and in January 2015, the company recalled all Granny Smith and Gala apples shipped from their Shafter, Calif., packing facility in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Both recalls were after Stewart's death.

Bidart manufactured the apples; PureFresh, H. Brooks and Excellence further processed and distributed the apples; and Kwik Trip sold the apples to general consumers, the lawsuit said.

"H. Brooks and Company and The Excellence Company are named in the lawsuit because the companies purchased apples from the California apple grower who was identified by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as the source of the 2014 listeria outbreak related to caramel apples," Brooks said.

Each of the five companies faces one count of strict product liability for a manufacturing defect; one count of negligence; two counts of negligence per se; and one count of breach of implied warranty.

According to the lawsuit, Stewart lived with her husband, Harold Stewart, in Rochester. She was a regular volunteer at the local library and church and an active member of the family and community. She left behind her husband, five daughters and 11 grandchildren.

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