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Listeriosis lab tests unlikely to change Tiger Brands liability stance, says class action firm

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The firm at the helm of a class action suit against Tiger Brands, Richard Spoor (RSI), has slammed the company’s court application to compel the release of epidemiological information as evidence as a bid at "buying time" and delaying the class action.

The class action seeks to get to the bottom of a listeriosis outbreak a few years ago when the Department of Health linked a listeriosis outbreak to a meat processing facility of Enterprise Foods, a subsidiary of Tiger Brands. The company received the class action notice in April last year and vowed to fight it.

Last year, the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg determined that Richard Spoor Attorneys could go ahead with a class action application representing over a thousand people affected by the listeriosis outbreak in 2017 and 2018 that claimed over 200 lives.

Last week Tuesday, the court compelled the third parties to provide critical epidemiological information required for the class action, within one month. This means that the epidemiological information would be provided by the end of July, as per the court decision.

"The effect of the ruling is to provide access to information relevant to the proceedings and enable the parties on both sides of the class action to move matters forward. The third parties may apply for leave to appeal against the order," the company said in a shareholder notice on Wednesday.

Spokesperson for RSI Catherine Marcus said it was the view of the firm, throughout these proceedings, that Tiger Brands was engaging in a "fishing expedition", and that the application was an exercise in trying to create a delay to the overall case.

"We do not believe that anything will come of the subpoenaed documents that will change our position that Tiger Brands is liable for the harm caused by the 2016-2018 listeriosis outbreak," said Marcus.

Marcus said the class representatives filed a notice of application this week to compel discovery by Tiger Brands.

"The class representatives have not been provided with full discovery by Tiger Brands, despite having over two years to prepare for it, including the results of whole genome sequencing undertaken by Tiger Brands after the outbreak was linked to its Polokwane facility and shut down by the Department of Health," Marcus said. 

Tiger Brands spokesperson Nevashnee Naicker said the group put out the subpoena which they did not honour, which drove them to pursue a compel order at the South Gauteng High Court, but the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) wanted it set aside.

"The court ruled in favour to compel the NICD, two laboratories and a number of meat producers to provide evidence. We issued subpoenas to the NICD and other parties to say we need the evidence they say they have, so we can meaningfully engage in the class action," said Naicker.

Naicker said the company wanted to move ahead with the legal process as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

"It was a requirement from the outset. Even in the pleading days, where the pleas were processed, we said we needed this information to proceed. Without the information from the labs and the NICD, it makes it very difficult for the process to move forward," Naicker said.

National Health Laboratory Service spokesperson Mzimasi Gcukumana said the NICD, which is a division of the NHLS, has not refused to share any information with the company or the courts.

"The court case was filed to question whether all the information that was requested by Tiger Brands was necessary. Most of the relevant information regarding the listeria outbreak is available in the public domain and has been published in academic journals," said Gcukumana.

Gcukumana said the laboratory service would comply with all official requests for additional information. 


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