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A California law firm is gathering plaintiffs whose children choked to death while eating plug-shaped Asian gel snacks that have since been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. O’Reilly, Collins & Danko, located in San Mateo, Calif., is representing families in several states and expects to be retained in more negligence cases. At least one child died after Oct. 5, when the FDA halted the importation of the mini gel candies. New clients include a Massachusetts family whose toddler choked on a gel candy, a Rhode Island family whose 4-year-old son died and the parents of a 3-year-old boy from San Jose, Calif. That child, Deven Joncich, was comatose for two days before his parents removed him from life support in November 2000. Joncich v. New Choice Foods Inc., No. CV 802601 (Santa Clara Co.). Partner Terry O’Reilly said his firm expects to add plaintiffs in Seattle, New York and Canada, which ordered a recall of the gel candies last month. 3 BILLION CANDIES Taiwanese manufacturer Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods Co. is a defendant in nearly every case, O’Reilly said. The company has sold more than 3 billion of the gels worldwide. Also named in the suits are the distribution companies and the markets that sold the candies. A suit brought by O’Reilly on behalf of the family of choking victim Michelle Enrile, 12, is expected to come to trial in Santa Clara County, Calif., in about six months. The suit alleges negligence, failure to warn adequately, wrongful death and other causes of action. The San Jose girl suffered brain damage and was in a coma from 1999 until her death in July. Other defendants in the Enrile case, including the distributor, importer and retailer, have settled their claims for $8 million. Enrile v. Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods Co., No. CV784959 (Santa Clara Co.). In May, a San Jose arbitrator made a nonbinding award of $24.8 million to the plaintiffs in that case. It was rejected by Sheng Hsiang. Gary S. Soter, who has represented the Taiwanese company for about three months, said he has not ruled out a settlement. “Our plan is we’re going to evaluate the case. If it’s appropriate to settle, we’ll try to settle. If not, we’ll present our case to the jury in San Jose,” said Soter, a partner in Wasserman, Comden & Casselman of Tarzana, Calif. In a press release, the company maintained that its products are safe and were not to blame for the girl’s death. The gel snacks are manufactured in Taiwan under names such as Jelly Yum, New Choice Jelly Cup and Mini Gel Snacks. They contain a dense, chewy gel called conjac or konnyaku — a binding agent made from an Asian yam — that encases a nugget of coconut. The gel is so thick that it does not dissolve in boiling water, and it cannot be swallowed without being chewed, O’Reilly said. Safety experts have criticized the candy’s shape, saying it acts like a plug in young throats, and its viscosity, which makes it extremely difficult to dislodge from the windpipe of an asphyxiated child. The snacks have been blamed for at least eight deaths in Japan. As a result of safety tests, choking hazard warnings were placed on the packages, cautioning against giving the snacks to small children. The candy that Michelle ate bore a warning that it must be chewed and was not recommended for children younger than three. The FDA banned imports of the gel candies in early October, about six weeks after hundreds of supermarkets across the country agreed to stop selling them. Despite the ban, O’Reilly said his investigators have still been able to purchase gel snacks at some smaller stores.

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