Sheetz Inc. has settled all but a few customer lawsuits spawned by salmonella-tainted tomatoes sold at its convenience stores two years ago. But complicated legal battles involving Sheetz, insurance companies and food suppliers must now settle this question: Who gets stuck with the multimillion-dollar tab?
So far, most of the money paid to Sheetz customers has come from U.S. Fire Insurance Co. The company insured Coronet Foods Inc., of Wheeling, W. Va., which sold the tomatoes to Sheetz. What remains to be seen is whether U.S. Fire will be reimbursed by Coronet’s suppliers and their insurance companies. Sheetz officials and Coronet’s former owner are also seeking damages for the harm done to the businesses.
Government investigators said at least 400 people got sick in early July 2004 from salmonella-tainted tomatoes they bought at Sheetz stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and six other states. Federal investigators traced the tomatoes to a Florida packing house, but said nothing was done wrong there to taint them. The feds also absolved Sheetz and Coronet.
Sheetz and Coronet say the first link in the supply chain is Procacci Brothers, a Philadelphia-based food distributor. A Procacci spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.
Meanwhile, U.S. Fire is suing Discover Re, Sheetz’s insurer, saying it should reimburse it for at least some of the customer settlements. William Marler, a food litigation veteran, said the real battle will feature large insurance companies that represent any companies linked to the tomatoes.
"When elephants dance, the grass gets trampled," Marler said. "And in this case, the grass was Sheetz and its customers."