• Key point. State and federal laws provide limited immunity from liability to charities that serve donated food to the needy without charge. These laws do not apply to the provision of food at church social functions, or the sale of food in cafeterias operated by church schools.
* A Washington state appeals court ruled that a school was liable on the basis of a state “product liability” law for the illnesses of several students who contracted e. coli poisoning as a result of eating tacos in the school cafeteria. The court also found the school liable for a case of e. coli poisoning of a 2-year-old child who did not eat in the school cafeteria but became ill through contact with someone who did. The Washington product liability law makes “manufacturers” of defective products strictly liable for resulting injuries. ” Strict liability” means that a manufacturer is liable without any ability to present a defense. A “product” is an object “produced for introduction into trade or commerce.” A “manufacturer” is any seller of the product who “designs, produces, makes, fabricates, constructs, or remanufactures the relevant product or component part of a product before its sale to a user or consumer.” This includes an original creator or intermediate seller who does more than merely pass along, unchanged, a previously packaged product. The court concluded that the school was a “manufacturer” because it did more than “pass along” the product (ground beef) to consumers. It began the process with 180 pounds of frozen ground beef. The frozen beef was thawed and then cooked in a steam kettle. Once cooked, the fat was drained off. The meat was rinsed, and refried beans, tomato paste, and seasonings were added. The taco meat was later scooped onto a tortilla along with other condiments and side dishes and then served. These acts made the school a manufacturer of the product rather than a mere retailer. The school “did not simply resell frozen ground beef, seasonings, and tortillas as a grocery store would. It took raw ingredients and made a taco lunch out of them.”
Application. This case suggests that churches and church-operated schools may be liable on the basis of a “products liability” claim if persons become ill or die from eating tainted food. There are two additional points to note. First, products liability claims are a strict liability cause of action. This means that a defendant is absolutely liable, without any chance of presenting a defense, if the requirements for liability spelled out in the law are met. Second, federal law (and the laws of many states) provide limited immunity to churches and other charities that serve food to the poor without charge. This immunity did not apply in this case because the school was selling the food to students. Almquist v. Finley School District, 2002 WL 31478876 (Wash. App. 2002).
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