Warnings, wrongful death lawsuit follow Sarasota-based creamery’s connection to listeria outbreak

Left- Big Olaf
Right - Mary Billman
Left- Big Olaf Right - Mary Billman(WWSB)
Published: Jul. 6, 2022 at 12:06 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 7, 2022 at 11:31 AM EDT

UPDATED July 7 with additional information.

SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against Big Olaf Creamery in Sarasota by the daughter of an Illinois woman who says her mother died after eating tainted ice cream in January.

The estate of Mary Billman filed the complaint for wrongful death in federal court Tuesday, charging the woman died of listeria 11 days after eating Big Olaf ice cream in Sarasota.

Last week, the Centers for the Disease Control issued a food safety alert linking the Big Olaf brand to a listeria outbreak and advised customers to avoid eating Big Olaf products.

ABC7 spoke to Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who is representing the Billman family, on a zoom call. He said Billman was visiting her daughter on Jan. 18 when she ate ice cream at the company’s store on Bahia Vista Street.

A week later, according to the suit, the 79-year-old woman began having gastrointestinal issues and a low-grade fever. Her symptoms persisted, and on Jan 27, she awoke to a 103-degree fever and was admitted to a hospital in South Florida.

Marler said Billman quickly succumbed to the listera after the infection got into her spinal fluid, then her brain. She died on Jan. 29, he said, after her brain swelled.

Billman leaves behind a husband, three daughters and eight grandchildren.

“Their mom died, their wife died, their grandma died, their great-grandmother died, all because she ate some ice cream,” Marler said.

The lawsuit claims Big Olaf is liable for selling contaminated ice cream and demands a jury trial.

Marler claims he’s ready to provide physical evidence proving Billman’s Listeria infection came from Big Olaf ice cream.

Listeria is a disease caused by eating food contaminated by bacteria. Marler explained that bacteria found in patients has a genetic code attached to them, similar to a QR code, which can positively trace each case back to their respective sources. Bacteria inside Billman, he said, was also pulled.

“That listeria was sent to the state lab and to the CDC and it was found to be a genetic match to other people who had listeria and got sick from Big Olaf’s ice cream,” he said.

ABC7 has reached out to Big Olaf Creamery repeatedly since the CDC first issued its food safety alert, and again after the lawsuit was filed, but they have not responded to our requests for an interview.

The only official word from the company was posted via its Facebook page days before the lawsuit was filed. It pushes back on the CDC alert claiming there isn’t definitive proof their ice cream caused the outbreak.

Here is the full statement:

“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. 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 2022. 6 out of the 23 patients mentioned having consumed Big Olaf ice cream, but nothing has been proven. We have been cooperating with the Florida Department of Health, FDACS and the FDA as soon as we were informed about the situation. We have been transparent and have answered all their questions and provided them with all the information requested from us, as the health and well-being of the public is our first priority.”

The CDC’s food safety alert posted July 1 claims a listeria outbreak responsible for killing one person and hospitalizing 22 others is linked to Big Olaf Creamery. Details of the ongoing investigation listed in the alert note six patients remember eating Big Olaf ice cream, or they ate ice cream at locations that might have been supplied by the Sarasota creamery.

The alert urges customers to stop eating the ice cream, throw it away and clean anything the products touched.

Many people online have been casting doubt on the alert, vowing to continue eating the ice cream anyway to support the local business. But a check on stores Thursday afternoon show all locations except the Venice store are currently closed.

The Venice store is open, but is serving Hershey’s brand ice cream.

A sign on the Cattlemen Road location says that store will be closed until July 11 because of a death in the family. A sign on the door of the company’s Tamiami Trail store says it is closed until July 8. A sign at the Siesta Key store says it is closed for cleaning. The Bahai Vista location is closed with no explanation posted. The St. Armands location is closed “until further notice,” a sign says.

We talked to Peter Pitts, a former Food and Drug Administration communications and policy adviser, who explained the process behind these alerts. It’s common that the alerts don’t claim to have pinpointed the source of an outbreak with 100% certainty, he said, but he insists a lot of research is backing them.

Those warnings, he said, should be taken seriously because they’re only issued if researchers have found significant evidence to believe the public is at risk.

“I wish I could say that there were easy answers that we knew for sure or sure there was no problem,” Pitts said. “But we don’t, which is why we have to act on the information that we have.”

Sarasota Memorial Hospital is following the same reasoning. Dr. Washington Hill, a fetal maternal medicine specialist, gathered local media for a news conference soon after the alert was posted warning listeria can cause stillbirths and miscarriages in pregnant women.

He urges expecting mothers to avoid eating Big Olaf products for now and call their doctors if they’ve eaten the ice cream recently. The elderly and people with compromised immune systems are also at high risk for serious complications.

Marler said the wrongful death suit could ultimately be brought before a judge and jury as the Billman’s plan to take the case to trial.

For an explanation of what listeria is and has transpired so far in this case, click here.

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