The parents of Joshua Kaye, an 8 year-old boy from Braintree, Massachusetts who died on July 7, 2014, after contracting an E. coli 0157:H7 infection that turned into hemolytic uremic syndrome, have filed suit against Whole Foods, the retail store from which they allege to have purchased the contaminated meat, and Rain Crow Ranch, a Missouri company that allegedly produced and sold the meat to Whole Foods. Joshua Kaye was one of three Massachusetts residents known to contract E. coli between June 13 and June 25, 2014, prompting an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”), in conjunction with the Center for Disease and Control Prevention (“CDC”) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. FSIS, which began its investigation on June 25, 2014, purportedly initially linked the E. coli contamination to Whole Foods stores in Newton and South Weymouth, Massachusetts, through epidemiological evidence. FSIS reports that laboratory testing performed on August 13, 2014, presumably Pulsed-field Gel Electrophoresis (“PFGE”), provided a link between the three Massachusetts cases and the Whole Foods markets. On August 15, 2014, Whole Foods initiated the voluntary recall of 368 pounds of ground beef products from its two stores.

Joshua Kaye’s father, Andrew Kaye, told New England Cable News (“NECN”) that DNA samples had linked their son to the E. coli outbreak. Furthermore, Plaintiffs’ Complaint asserts that a stool sample taken from Joshua Kaye resulted in an E. coli 0157:H7 positive culture that “identically matched the Whole Foods Market E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak strain.” Both Whole Foods and Rain Crow Ranch have denied any clear link between the Massachusetts E. coli illnesses and their respective businesses.

Plaintiffs have asserted claims against Whole Foods for: (1) Breach of Implied Warranty of Merchantability; (2) Breach of Warranty in Violation of M.G.L. ch. 93A; (3) Breach of M.G.L. ch. 93A; (4) Negligence; (5) Gross Negligence and Reckless Conduct; (6) Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress; (7) Conscious Pain and Suffering; (8) Wrongful Death; and (9) Punitive Damages.

What Does It Mean for Whole Foods? As a non-manufacturing product seller, Whole Foods appears to have pass-through liability for the sale of contaminated beef. On that basis, we expect Whole Foods to tender the defense and indemnification of their claim to Rain Crow Ranch. Whole Foods’ success in getting their tender accepted, however, will depend upon the terms of their contract with Rain Crow Ranch for the purchase of ground beef, as well as their role, if any, in the production process in advance of sale. For instance, if Whole Foods’ handling or processing of the subject beef caused or contributed to the alleged E. coli contamination, its independent negligence would preclude a common law indemnification claim and potentially impede a claim for contractual indemnity.

Further, Whole Foods’ tender will be complicated, by Plaintiffs’ assertion of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 93A claims (“93A”). 93A provides a cause of action for unfair or deceptive practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce. Entities found to have breached 93A can be subject to double or treble damages. Plaintiffs have asserted two separate 93A claims against Whole Foods: (1) for the sale of contaminated meat in contradiction to its marketing of the product as safe; and (2) for failing to make a reasonable offer of settlement in response to Plaintiffs’ 93A demand letter. The latter 93A claim presumably falls outside the bounds of any indemnification provision contained within a purchase agreement entered into by the defendants relative to the subject beef, because it arises from acts independent of the sale of Rain Crow Ranch’s product.