Wrongful death suit filed amid listeria outbreak

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The family of a California woman whose death was linked to prepackaged caramel apples sued the Safeway grocery chain on Monday for selling her the product.

The lawsuit filed in Santa Cruz County Superior Court alleges that Shirlee Jean Frey, 81, bought caramel apples from a Safeway supermarket in Felton a few days before Halloween. She died at a hospital on Dec. 2 after suffering from a listeria infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Frey was sickened with the same strains of the bacterial illness listeria that infected 28 others in 10 states. Of those, five died. Listeriosis contributed to four of the deaths; a fifth person who died had a strain of listeria linked to the caramel apples, but health officials do not think listeriosis caused that person's death.

The agency said that 83 percent of the ill people who were interviewed reported eating commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples before getting sick.

One of the attorneys representing Frey's 87-year-old husband and two sons said health investigators took the remaining caramel apples from the family's house.

"The thought that a caramel apple could sicken and kill people is a little disconcerting," Bill Marler said. "It's been hard for the family; it's been a shock to them."

The CDC is trying to determine which brands are involved and how the caramel apples may have become infected. In the meantime, it has urged anyone with commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples at home to throw them away.

Marler said that under California law, Safeway is liable for selling a product that is contaminated with listeria.

A spokesperson for Safeway, headquartered in Pleasanton, couldn't be reached after business hours.

Listeria is a foodborne illness that is especially dangerous to pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It rarely causes serious illness in healthy people and can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea and diarrhea.

Because it can be so serious for some people, outbreaks of listeria generally cause more deaths than other pathogens such as salmonella or E. coli. An outbreak of listeria linked to Colorado cantaloupe in 2011 caused 33 deaths.

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