Woman's estate wins big award from Big Olaf in wrongful listeria death lawsuit
SARASOTA — The estate of a 79-year-old Illinois woman who died after eating listeria-tainted ice cream from a Sarasota creamery was awarded $4 million by a U.S. District Court judge in Tampa this week.
The ruling came Tuesday in the wrongful death suit filed last year by Bill Marler, a nationally known foodborne illness attorney who represented the estate of Mary Billman. Marler was retained following Billman's death on Jan. 29, 2022, and the listeria outbreak identified by federal and state regulators last summer that gained national attention.
Billman died two weeks after eating ice cream manufactured by Sarasota-based Big Olaf creamery that contained traces of listeria, according to the lawsuit.
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Marler said the manufacturer seemingly ignored both the lawsuit and the litigation process despite being served. The case proceeded with a default order of judgment, Marler said, which came after a virtual evidentiary hearing.
"Two of (Billman) the daughters and a granddaughter testified. The granddaughter is now caring for Mr. Billman... He really relied on Mary as his caregiver so it has really been a big struggle for him this past year and a half. It's been hard for him," Marler said.
The court awarded $3 million in compensatory damages to Billman for the loss of his wife and and additional $1 million in punitive damages due to the "egregious nature" of what Big Olaf "did and didn't do" in the production of ice cream, Marler said.
"Unaware of the threat growing silently within her body, it was too late to save her life by the time Mary developed the signs and symptoms of the infection that was about to make her gravely ill," stated a memo filed by the plaintiffs for the bench hearing. "Less than two weeks after ingesting the ice cream, Mary Billman was dead."
Billman was survived her husband, Richard Billman, three daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, court documents showed. She was the primary caregiver for her husband, who has dementia and other health issues.
The memo noted that Big Olaf was unresponsive to the lawsuit.
"Big Olaf Creamery, LLC, has failed to respond to and/or cooperate with numerous governmentalagencies investigating this matter including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Florida Department of Health (FL-DOH),and Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS)," the court filing noted, adding, "To date, Defendant, Big Olaf Creamery, LLC, has failed to file any motion or responsive pleading, or take any action whatsoever in defense in this case despite being served with every filing by undersigned counsel and being given every opportunity to appear and defend itself."
Big Olaf was asked to produce proof of compliance with requirements by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in mid-December, but the the company is believed to no longer be in the ice cream business.
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The department's communication director Aaron Keller confirmed Wednesday that Big Olaf LLC is "not operating, manufacturing or distributing that product."
"There is an ongoing process of administration review and there could be other actions, fines and things like that, that could be coming," Keller said.
Mary Billman was one of 28 individuals who developed a serious infection from the listeria outbreak traced back to Big Olaf. Billman allegedly ate contaminated ice cream at the former Big Olaf Pinecraft location at 3350 Bahia Vista St. in Sarasota.
On July 2, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control officials advised consumers to throw out Big Olaf products following bacteria-contaminated samples found in 16 of 17 flavors, leading the state to shut down the manufacturer's operations. The Billman family filed the suit against the company on July 5, three days after the CDC issued the warning. The outbreak spanned 11 states. The 3350 Bahia Vista St. location has since rebranded and now sources products from a different supplier and creamery.
The listeria outbreak was declared over by the CDC in early November 2022.
Listeriosis infects about 1,600 people every year, and about 260 die, according to the CDC. The elderly, immuno-compromised and pregnant people are more likely to have bad symptoms of the disease.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Big Olaf listeria lawsuit: Millions awarded to family after woman's death