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Hartford granted $6.1M judgment in hepatitis case


A federal district court in Virginia granted a Hartford Financial Services Inc. unit a $6.1 million judgment in damages, prejudgment interest and attorneys fees and costs in connection with frozen strawberries that led to a 2016 hepatitis outbreak.

The frozen strawberries, which were used in smoothies served to franchises of Atlanta-based Tropical Smoothie Cafe, had allegedly been imported from Egypt by Quebec, Canada-based VLM Foods, according to the ruling by the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, in Sentinel Insurance Co. Ltd. v. VLM Foods, et al. 

FLM had sold the strawberries to a frozen produce wholesaler, San Luis Obispo, California-based Patagonia Foods, which then relied on two companies to deliver the frozen strawberries to TSC franchises, the ruling said. 

In 2016, more than 200 claims were made against TSC and various TSC franchises to recover damages for bodily injuries sustained from consuming the contaminated strawberries.

After Patagonia and VLM refused to provide a defense and indemnity, TSC’s insurer, Harford unit Sentinel, ultimately incurred $3.5 million in attorneys fees and litigation expenses to defend TX against the claims and in settlements.

In November 2019, Sentinel filed suit in the district court to recover that amount, plus interest from Patagonia and VLM under various hold harmless agreements.

In two opinions, in October 2021 and May 2022, the district court held that VLM and Patagonia were jointly and severally liable to Sentinel for the $3.5 million it had incurred to defend TSC against the strawberry claims, plus prejudgment interest on the amount and attorneys fees and costs Sentinel had incurred in pursuing the litigation.

Still unaddressed in those rulings were the issues of the fees and costs that Sentinel and Patagonia incurred in the action and the calculation of prejudgment interest.

In its order issued Thursday, the court held that in addition to the $3.5 million in damages it had awarded in October 2021, Sentinel should be awarded $1.1 million in prejudgment interest running from Nov. 1, 2019, $1.2 million in attorneys fees and $292,477.89 in costs and expenses incurred in the litigation.

Patagonia was also awarded $246,888.95 against VLM for Patagonia’s attorneys fees, with post-judgment interest.

Attorneys in the case did not respond to requests for comment.