Fraud, Conspiracy related to the Deadly Outbreak from PCA’s Peanut Processing Plan

The 2008 Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak traced to the now-shuttered company Peanut Corporation of America not only triggered severe sickness and even death, but also spurred a criminal investigation that has reverberations to this day. After nine deaths and more than 700 reported illnesses, the FBI launched an investigation into Peanut Corporation of America and its chief executives, including former CEO Stewart Parnell.

According to investigators, who spent four years looking into how the contaminated peanut products reached the market, Parnell and others in the company knew it was shipping dangerous products from its processing plants in Plainview, Texas, and Blakely, Georgia. The incident was a target for investigators because the resulting salmonella outbreak caused the largest number of recalls for one ingredient in the history of the United States. The outbreak not only affected hundreds of end consumers across the nation, but also forced Peanut Corporation of America into bankruptcy and caused companies who incorporated contaminated peanut pastes and butters into finished products millions of dollars.

Eventually, federal prosecutors brought criminal charges related to fraud and conspiracy against several Peanut Corporation of America figures, including former Vice President Michael Parnell, quality control manager Mary Wilkerson, and Blakely plant manager Samuel Lightsey. All four defendants posted bail and are awaiting trial.

Most recently, ex-CEO Stewart Parnell was in federal court in Albany, Georgia as his lawyers argued that expert witnesses should be permitted to testify as to Parnell’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If the court decides that experts may testify as to Parnell suffering from ADHD, it would bolster the former CEO’s defense and potentially allow him to shift blame to other defendants. Because crimes such as fraud tend to require that the defendant performed the criminal act knowingly, testimony about ADHD could be used to suggest that Parnell was not capable of managing or even keeping track of all of the complicated wrinkles of the conspiracy and fraud prosecutors allege took place.

In the United States court system, expert witnesses can testify with broader freedom than lay witnesses, and they are typically tasked with explaining difficult scientific or medical concepts. However, the court must verify that the expert is a legitimate one and is basing his or her opinions on valid, scientifically reliable data before the expert is permitted to testify. This is done via a pre-trial hearing, known as a “Daubert hearing,” based on a 1993 case involving a plaintiff of the same name.