SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A former peanut company executive serving a 28-year prison sentence won't have to pay money to victims of a deadly salmonella outbreak linked to his Georgia plant, a federal judge ruled.
Former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell and three co-defendants were spared by the judge's order Wednesday from paying restitution to corporate customers and the families of hundreds who got sick after eating tainted peanut butter in 2008 and 2009. The outbreak was blamed for nine deaths and 714 illnesses.
Convicted of knowingly shipping tainted peanut butter and faking results of lab tests for salmonella, Parnell received the harshest criminal penalty ever for a U.S. producer in a food-borne illness case when he was sentenced to prison in September. His brother, food broker Michael Parnell, got 20 years in prison.
But the question of whether the Parnell brothers and two former managers of Peanut Corporation's plant in rural Blakely, Georgia, should compensate victims for financial losses dragged the case out for six more months.
Ultimately, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands ruled victim loss estimates provided by prosecutors were invalid because they were based on civil claims and included costs — such as attorney fees — that can't be recovered in a criminal case.
Parnell's attorney, Tom Bondurant, said the same financial loss estimates the judge deemed too flawed for calculating restitution had played a big role in determining Parnell's long prison sentence.
"In the big scheme of things, there seems to be a disconnect where you can find loss and send somebody to jail for the rest of their life but not order restitution," Bondurant said.
The judge also noted an insurance policy held by Peanut Corporation paid out more than $12 million to victims. And he concluded that ordering the Parnell brothers to pay money "would ultimately be for naught or close-to-naught" given their lengthy prison sentences. Peanut Corporation declared bankruptcy and shut down after the outbreak.
"We kind of knew it was a shot in the dark," said Randy Napier, whose 80-year-old mother in Ohio was among the nine people who died.
Napier had written the judge to suggest a restitution amount of $500,000 total. Napier said he and other victims' families wanted the money to go to groups such as Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP, that help victims of food-borne illnesses.
"With all the agony and stress they put us through over the years, we thought: Why not kick them while they're down?" Napier said. "They kept kicking us while we were down."
The ruling also means two former plant managers, Sammy Lightsey and Danny Kilgore, don't owe victims any money. They pleaded guilty to helping ship salmonella-tainted peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste to customers who used them in products from snack crackers to pet food.
Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.