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Steele v. Bell-Carter Foods (2019)

April 24, 2019

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Horvitz & Levy LLP obtained the affirmance of a summary judgment, resulting in reaffirmation of a favorable rule of law in products liability claims arising from injuries caused by substances in food products that are natural to the preparation of the product.

Bell-Carter Foods is the largest producer of table olives in the United States. Bell-Carter sold cans labelled “Pitted Olives” with a warning on the back of the can stating, “Caution: Look Out for Pits!” Plaintiff Susan Steele claimed she bought a can of pitted olives and sustained injuries as a result of biting into an olive that contained a pit or pit fragment. Plaintiff filed a personal injury action alleging claims for negligence, strict liability and breach of express warranty. After plaintiff abandoned her negligence claim, the trial court granted summary judgment on the remaining claims.

The plaintiff appealed from the summary judgment and Horvitz & Levy represented Bell-Carter on appeal. The California Court of Appeal (First District, Division Four) affirmed. On the strict liability claim, the court held a strict liability claim will not lie for injuries caused by substances that are natural to the preparation of the food. A plaintiff may recover for injuries caused by a substance that is natural to the preparation of the food only if she proves negligence—the very claim plaintiff abandoned in this case. Because the food product at issue here was a can of olives, the court held olive pits (or fragments of pits) were natural to its preparation. On the breach of warranty claim, the court held that the statement “Pitted Olives” on the label cannot be construed as a warranty that the can contained no pits or pit fragments. Reasonably construed, the words “Pitted Olives” did not constitute a representation of perfection, but merely a description indicating that the can contains pitted olives. The court also held the words on the label had to be construed as a whole. In light of the warning, plaintiff could not reasonably have read the label as a warranty that the can contained no pits or pit fragments.