Packaged goods company Tiger Brands. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
At least 500 victims of South Africa’s deadly listeriosis outbreak have signed up for a class action lawsuit to hold Tiger Brands legally and financially liable for the loss and devastation caused by the disease between 2017 and 2018.

Human rights lawyer Richard Spoor invited those affected to come forward during a nationwide advertising campaign that was launched this week.

Spoor’s team was granted permission to launch the class action by the South Gauteng High Court in December. He said he wanted justice to prevail in what he termed a “David versus Goliath matter”.

“About 206 people died. About 200 women had miscarriages. This was the biggest food poisoning case in history. I have not been able to find a reference in any case where such a huge number of people died,” he said.

The source of the outbreak in 2017-2018 was traced to a Tiger Brands factory in Polokwane.

The World Health Organisation described listeriosis as a serious, but preventable and treatable disease caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. It said the bacteria were widely distributed in nature and apart from soil, water, vegetation and the faeces of some animals, and were found in animal products, including meat and fresh produce.

It said pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems were most at risk.

In South Africa, many of the people affected by the outbreak had eaten Tiger Brands polony.

The National Department of Health said there were at least 1000 victims.

Yesterday, Spoor was confident of a strong case against Tiger Brands.

“It is a big case because so many people died, but it won’t be hard to win. It may take one to three years to finalise,” said Spoor whose legal team includes medical doctors and advocates.

“I think our chances are strong. Tiger Brands admitted their products were contaminated, and people who consumed them could have become sick, died or lost unborn babies. The only thing they are denying is that they were negligent and legally liable.”

Spoor said he wanted the court to punish the company by making an order of constitutional damages and awarding additional compensation for the violation of people’s rights.

Before the ad campaign started, 150 victims had already joined the class action.

Spoor urged others to come forward so they could be compensated. He said victims who were part of the class action did not have to fork out any money, but the lawyers would be entitled to recover their fees from the class members’ award, up to a maximum of 20%.

“We are hoping to get as many people as possible. The Minister of Health agreed and the court allowed him to make the names and contact details of victims available to a third party. We will contact them directly to join,” Spoor said.

Tiger Brands chief corporate affairs officer Mary Jane Morifi said the company was committed to acting with honesty and integrity throughout the process. She said it would work closely with the attorneys for the claimants so the matter could be expedited.

“We acknowledge the listeriosis outbreak affected all South Africans. Our thoughts remain with all those who have been victims of the disease and those who have lost loved ones.”

Sunday Tribune