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From Products Liability Law Daily, January 17, 2018

Shrimp contaminated with natural toxin not ‘manufactured’ for purposes of strict liability

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

Three sellers and suppliers of seafood could not be held strictly liable to a restaurant diner who allegedly had sustained permanent injury from eating shrimp contaminated with a natural toxin because the shrimp was not a "manufactured product," a federal district court in Puerto Rico ruled in dismissing the diner’s claims. The federal court reached its decision after the Puerto Rico Supreme Court answered determinative questions previously certified by the district court (Gonzalez Caban v. JR Seafood, January 16, 2018, Gelpi, G.).

The diner was hospitalized in critical condition for several days after eating the shrimp and subsequently was diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia. According to his medical experts, his illness was caused by Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning from eating the shrimp, which contained a natural toxin called saxitoxin. The diner brought various claims against the sellers and suppliers, the restaurant, and their insurers, but the defendants moved to dismiss the diner’s strict liability claims on the grounds that shrimp is not a manufactured product but is caught in the wild. Observing that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court had last addressed the issue of strict liability for food products in 1969, the district court found that the commonwealth’s high court had not previously addressed this issue, nor was there any local precedent. The district court noted that other courts considering the issue had focused either on the nature of the object in the food or whether a consumer would expect to find the object in the food [see Products Liability Law Daily’s September 14, 2015 analysis].

Certified question. In 2015, the district court certified the following questions to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court: "Under the principles of product liability, is a supplier/seller strictly liable for the damages caused by human consumption of an extremely poisonous natural toxin found in a shrimp, even if said food product (and its "defect") are not a result of manufacturing or fabrication process? If the previous question is answered in the affirmative, would it make a difference if the "defect" of the food product is readily discoverable scientifically or otherwise?"

Manufactured product. The commonwealth’s high court answered the question by ruling [Note: the case linked to is untranslated] that strict liability did not apply because a shrimp contaminated with saxitoxin was not "manufactured" because it became contaminated without human intervention. Using this principle in the present case, the district court concluded that the diner’s strict liability claims could not proceed. However, the diner may still pursue his remaining claims, the court advised.

The case is No. 14-1507 (GAG).

Attorneys: Jaime F. Agrait-Llado (Agrait Llado Law Office) for Luis Gonzalez-Caban. Wilfredo A. Geigel (Law Offices of Wilfredo A. Geigel) and Eduardo J. Cobian-Roig (Cobian Roig Law Office) for Packers Provisions of Puerto Rico Inc. Jose E. Otero-Matos (Jose E. Otero Law Offices) for Integrand Assurance Co. Inc.

Companies: JR Seafood Inc.; Packers Provisions of Puerto Rico Inc.; Integrand Assurance Co. Inc.

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