Sarasota ice cream maker sued for 'wrongful death' of grandma
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The lawsuit names an ice cream maker that has locations in St. Augustine, Fernandina Beach, Tampa and across the state.

SARASOTA, Fla. — The widower of a great-grandmother, who used to live in the Sarasota area, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a Sarasota-based ice cream manufacturer that the CDC recently announced it was investigating amid a Listeria outbreak.

Mary Billman’s husband is suing Big Olaf Creamery, which sells products to Florida ice cream shops, including parlors owned and operated under its own brand name.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the Tampa division of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. It claims Billman was visiting her daughter on Jan. 18 in Florida when she ate ice cream at the Big Olaf Creamery on Bahia Vista Street near Kaufman Avenue in Sarasota. The lawsuit alleges that ice cream was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

By Jan. 25, the lawsuit says Billman had developed gastrointestinal issues, a low-grade fever and a urinary tract infection. On Jan. 27, she was rushed to the hospital with a fever of more than 103 degrees.

“Over the course of the next two days, Mrs. Billman’s organs began to shut down due to her septic illness,” the lawsuit said. “By the time her family was able to see her again, she was unconscious.”

Her family says she never regained consciousness and died on Jan. 29, leaving behind her husband, three daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandkids.

The lawsuit accuses Big Olaf Creamery of negligence, arguing Billman’s ice cream was contaminated by “a dangerous foodborne pathogen.”

In a July 2 food safety alert, the CDC confirmed 22 other people had been hospitalized across 10 states due to the Listeria outbreak. The ice cream is only sold in Florida, and most of the people who have been sickened reported travel to the state shortly before symptoms began.

The CDC said Big Olaf was voluntarily contacting retailers, recommending stores stop selling their ice cream until further notice. Government regulators also urged consumers to throw away any Big Olaf ice cream they might have at home.

An investigation is underway into the Listeria outbreak, though no official recall has been initiated, according to the CDC.

“The FDA is aware of and stands at the ready to assist with the outbreak investigation of Listeria monocytogenes infections being led by Florida state partners,” an FDA spokesperson said. “Florida issued an advisory with specific advice for people living in or traveling to Florida.”

10 Tampa Bay attempted to reach Big Olaf Creamery on Tuesday in an effort to get a response to the lawsuit. A spokesperson with whom we had previously spoken did not have a voice mail set up. A company voicemail was full, so we couldn’t leave a message. An email has not yet been returned.

However, we did hear from Big Olaf Creamery last weekend.

At the time, company officer David Peachey explained that the business’ retail locations are independently owned. Thus, he said the ice cream manufacturer cannot force them to stop selling the products unless there is definitive proof that the outbreak is specifically linked to their stores. However, Peachey said it was recommended that stores that sell the products be temporarily shut down until testing can be completed.

At least one Sarasota store that 10 Tampa Bay visited over the weekend was continuing to sell the ice cream.

Peachey told 10 Tampa Bay he was confident that Big Olaf Creamery has followed health guidelines when it comes to manufacturing and added that more inspections were being completed this week.

In a separate statement on social media, Big Olaf Creamery said it had been cooperating with Florida regulators and the FDA. The company said it had been transparent and answered questions from health investigators – adding that the health and wellbeing of the public was the business’ “first priority.”

However, the brand also made clear that it believes it’s too early to draw any conclusions on the source of the Listeria outbreak.

“For now it is only speculation as it is an ongoing investigation, our brand has not been confirmed to be linked to these cases, I am not sure why only Big Olaf is being mentioned and targeted,” Big Olaf Creamery wrote Sunday on Facebook. “The original report we got from the Florida Department of Health on Friday July 1st, was that there are 23 cases reported, the first one reported was January 2021. 6 out of the 23 patients mentioned having consumed Big Olaf ice cream, but nothing has been proven.”

According to the CDC, Listeria is most likely to cause serious illness in senior citizens, pregnant women, newborns or other people with weakened immune systems. Severe illness is more likely when the bacteria spreads beyond the gut and into other parts of a person’s body.

“Symptoms of severe illness usually start within 2 weeks after eating food contaminated with Listeria, but may start as early as the same day or as late as 70 days after,” the CDC explains on its website.

The CDC urged people who fit the following criteria and have the below symptoms to call their doctor right away:

  • Pregnant women: Fever, fatigue, muscle aches
  • People who aren’t pregnant: Headaches, stiff necks, confusion, loss of balance, convulsions, fever and muscle aches

In some cases, Listeria can cause symptoms that are similar to ones associated with food poisoning. Click here for frequently asked questions and answers about Listeria.

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