Guest Column | March 31, 2016

Food Safety And Legal Liability: From CEOs To The Production Line — Ignorance Of The Law Is No Excuse

Melanie Neumann, J.D., M.S., Neumann Risk Services

By Melanie Neumann, J.D., M.S., Neumann Risk Services

An often-quoted phrase, dating back to a few known sources including Blackstone, known by lawyers and legal historians, says “often a mistake in point of law which every person of discretion not only may, but is bound and presumed to know, is in criminal cases no sort of defense. Ignorantia juris, quod quisque teneture scire, neminem excusat is as well the maxim of our own law as it was of the Roman.”

Most of the time this age old adage is honored. It is honored through a legal liability theory known as strict liability, which is in brief,

Automatic responsibility without having to prove negligence for damages due to possession and/or use of equipment, materials or possessions which are inherently dangerous…. This is analogous to the doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” where control, ownership and damages are sufficient to hold the owner liable even without proof of specific negligent acts or omissions.

Strict liability is civil tort law, as well as a criminal law doctrine, that imposes liability on an individual (and corporations are deemed individuals in the eyes of the law) regardless of negligence or knowledge. In short, no fault is required to be found guilty. One is “strictly liable” provided that the injured party can prove the item was defective, it proximately caused the injury, and that the defect created an unreasonably dangerous product. The victim can recover damages even if the manufacturer exercised all possible care in manufacturing the product and had no idea it was adulterated when it further shipped the product into commerce.

Some may ask, “If this strict liability standard has been around for so long, why have we not seen many food-related lawsuits until what seems like recently?” For example, FSMA seems to have sparked more litigation than ever before against CEOs, other senior officials, and even down the production line to mid-level quality assurance personnel, such as the case with a certain peanut butter/peanut paste recall we heard so much about recently.

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