Targeting not only the supplier and distributor of tainted cantaloupes but also setting sights on Wal-Mart and auditor PrimusLabs, a prominent food safety lawyer has filed multiple lawsuits stemming from a listeria outbreak.

Seattle-based food safety lawyer Bill Marler has filed eight lawsuits related to the listeria outbreak, and is working on behalf of at least three dozen people sickened or killed in the outbreak health officials traced to Jensen Farms, Holly, Colo. Ten of those cases involve the estates of people whose deaths are linked to the outbreak

More lawsuits are expected, he said Nov. 8, including one naming Santa Barbara, Calif.-based PrimusLabs, which inspected the cantaloupe farm and facility.

In an e-mail, Robert Stovicek, president of Santa Maria, Calif.-based PrimusLabs, said he had no comment on the potential lawsuit.

Marler on Nov. 8 said seeking liability from a third-party auditor will be a hard-fought battle.

“I think they are not going to want to agree to that, because it would open themselves up for some pretty significant changes in the way they do business — for all auditors,” he said.

The lawsuit filed in Colorado for plaintiffs Charles and Tammy Palmer in September names Wal-Mart Inc. and Jensen Farms as defendants. Other lawsuits name Jensen Farms and Frontera, which marketed the cantaloupes.

Bankruptcy fallout?

Marler said the Palmer lawsuit is the only one listing a retailer, but more retailers could be involved later, chiefly because he expects Jensen Farms and Frontera to be forced into bankruptcy.

“Eventually, not just for the ill people, but also cases against them from outside entities, I don’t see any choices for Jensen Farms and Frontera but Chapter 7 (liquidation),” Marler said.

Jim Mulhern, spokesman for Edinburg, Texas-based Frontera Produce Ltd., said the company could not comment on pending litigation, but that any lawsuit presents a financial burden in that resources are diverted away from jobs and growth.

He also said Frontera looks forward to serving its customers for many years to come.

Eric Jensen, owner of Jensen Farms, did not return calls for comment.

Wal-Mart’s reaction

“We wish Mr. Palmer well, and we take claims such as his very seriously,” said Dianna Gee, senior manager for media relations for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart.

She said she had no other comment on the lawsuit.

Gee said that as soon as Wal-Mart became aware of the outbreak associated with cantaloupes from the Rocky Ford area, the retailer worked with suppliers to determine the source, removing them before Jensen announced a recall.

She said recent foodborne outbreaks and concerns reported by regulatory officials in the U.S. and abroad, linked to small and local suppliers, prompted Wal-Mart to improve the

retailer’s process for sourcing products from secondary and local suppliers.

“Based on some findings, we have cut ties with some suppliers,” she said Nov. 10.

Gee said Wal Mart was in the process of requiring the chain’s secondary suppliers to achieve prevention-based certification on one of the Global Food Safety Initiative-benchmarked standards.

Although growers, processors and distributors are often defendants in similar outbreaks, retailers haven’t been exempt from damages in the past. Marler said some retailers and helped pay claims resulting from a salmonella outbreak case in 2008 and 2009 when the Peanut Corp. of America went bankrupt, leaving victims looking for compensation.

Marler said Jensen Farms has $2 million in insurance and Frontera $10 million to cover claims.

Frontera disputes that number, and Marler's account of the lawsuits' effect on the company.

“Unfortunately, there has been much unfounded speculation surrounding this matter from the very beginning,” according to a statement from Mulhern. “We simply won't engage in it. What’s important for everyone to know is that our company and its dedicated employees look forward to serving our customers for many years to come.”

Besides the claims filed by Marler’s firm, there are at least five other lawsuits, he said.