Texan Alleges Mexican Pig Farm May Be Liable for Pregnant Wife’s Death From Swine Flu

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

The husband of a pregnant woman in Texas who died from swine flu last week has made the opening legal moves in what could become a $1 billion civil suit for wrongful death against a U.S. hog producer that raised pigs in Mexico, which he alleges may be involved with the outbreak. (The petition was first reported by The Brownsville Herald.)

On 11 May, Steven Trunnell, a paramedic, filed a petition in the District Court of Cameron County, Texas, that seeks to depose representatives from Smithfield Foods, a Virginia-based company that owns 50% of Granjas Carroll de Mexico, a large hog operation in the state of Veracruz. Trunnell’s wife, Judy, a special education teacher who was 8 months pregnant, was hospitalized because of swine flu on 19 April and died from infection with the novel H1N1 virus on 5 May, according to the petition. The healthy baby was delivered by cesarean section before the mother died. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on 12 May published a dispatch in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report about H1N1 in pregnancy that describes her case in detail. If discovery finds evidence to justify the wrongful-death claim, the petition states that Trunnell will amend his pleading and seek to hold Smithfield Foods liable for as much $1 billion in damages.

Granjas Carroll has received intense media attention for several weeks because a boy who lived in La Gloria, a town near the hog farm, had one of the earliest confirmed cases of swine flu in Mexico. The petition claims that “it is likely that the creation and spread of this lethal strain of swine flu may have been caused, in part, by historically unsanitary conditions which Smithfield Foods knowingly caused to occur in Mexico in connection with the operation of the largest pig farm business in the world.” The petition further alleges that “it is reasonable to expect that this area around La Gloria is ‘ground zero’ for the H1N1-2009 swine influenza virus,” claiming that the boy “appears to be the first person in the world who was diagnosed” with the virus.

Although epidemiologists have focused much attention on La Gloria because of a respiratory outbreak there that dates back to mid-February, a leading Mexican epidemiologist from the Ministry of Health on 4 May told Science that they had confirmed a case earlier than the boy's and that it was from Mexico City, which calls into question the location of the outbreak’s origin in Mexico. Many researchers also remain unconvinced that the virus jumped from a pig in Mexico into humans living there, as it could have come into that country from an infected human, and there’s no evidence yet that pigs anywhere in Mexico—or any workers at Granjas Carroll—have been infected with the virus.

Smithfield Foods did not respond to a request for an interview. The attorney representing Steven Trunnell, Marc Rosenthal, also could not be reached for comment.

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