The former U.S. attorney for Georgia’s Middle District says the takeaway from a decision by a federal appellate court in Atlanta upholding convictions his office secured in one of the largest criminal food safety cases in the nation’s history is simple: Individual executives will be accountable for their companies’ transgressions.
Former U.S. Attorney Michael Moore, now a partner at Pope McGlamry in Atlanta, said the prosecutions of Stewart Parnell, president of the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America; Parnell’s brother, Michael Parnell; and other members of his executive staff was, in the end, “about the fact that people had gotten sick and died because of pure greed.”
More than 700 people were sickened, and nine people died following a 2008 salmonella outbreak that was traced back to the company’s South Georgia peanut processing plant, which sold peanut paste and other products to food producers across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimated that as many as 20,000 people may have been stricken who did not report their symptoms to medical authorities.
More than 300 companies, including major food producers such as Kellogg’s, recalled more than 4,000 separate products that included peanut paste suspected of bacterial contamination, resulting in collective losses of more than $144 million, according to evidence presented during the case.
In an unpublished opinion handed down Jan. 23, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentences of the Parnell brothers and Mary Wilkerson, the company’s quality assurance director. Following a seven-week trial in 2014 , U.S. District Senior Judge Louis Sands sentenced Stewart Parnell to 28 years in prison, Michael Parnell to 20 years in prison and Wilkerson to five years in prison for their roles in perpetuating the salmonella outbreak through interstate shipments of adulterated peanut products and then covering it up.
Attorneys who defended the trio—Justin Lugar of Virginia law firm Gentry Locke for Stewart Parnell; Edward Tolley of Cook & Tolley in Athens, Georgia, for Michael Parnell; and Wilkerson’s counsel, Albany attorney Thomas Ledford—could not be reached for comment.
An appellate panel that included Circuit Judges Gerald Tjoflat and Beverly Martin and Senior Judge Robert Lanier Anderson issued the unanimous ruling. According to the order, the panel rejected defense claims that the jury had secured information about the deaths linked to the outbreak, even though the fact of the deaths were withheld from the jury during the trial.
The information surfaced post-conviction after a juror gave an affidavit to Stewart Parnell’s attorney claiming that some members of the jury had conducted their own out-of-court research and had learned of the deaths, which had been withheld from the jury during the trial, according to the appellate order.
The juror, identified only as Juror 34, also claimed that another juror had told her “she believed all the defendants were guilty because they had caused people to die.”’ That second juror denied making the statement when questioned later by Sands, who conducted an extensive inquiry before declining to throw out the verdict.
“We recognize that several jurors testified that they were aware that the salmonella outbreak caused deaths,” the appellate panel held, and that they had been exposed to that information outside of the confines of the courtroom.
The panel added, “We cannot conclude that jurors’ exposure to extrinsic evidence that the salmonella outbreak caused deaths is not prejudicial at all.”
However, the panel determined that, during the trial, the jury heard evidence regarding “the exceedingly serious nature” of the salmonella outbreak, and the indictment included language that salmonella can be life-threatening.
“In light of all of this evidence,” the panel concluded, “We cannot conclude that the exposure of several jurors to the fact that several people also died from the outbreak was highly prejudicial.”
Moore said the lesson of the Peanut Corp. prosecutions is “the message that was sent dealing with individual accountability and responsibility for corporate actions.”
“This was a real effort to make sure the public understood that corporations and individuals would not be able to buy their way out of prosecutions,” Moore said. “Companies couldn’t come in and settle a case for a monetary sum when true justice demanded that somebody face incarceration.”
Stewart Parnell’s record sentence for violating the US. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act “certainly set alarm bells off in corporate boardrooms across the country,” Moore concluded. “It reminded people making decisions about corporate activities that there could be an individual price to pay when they broke the law.”