Wrongful death lawsuit filed over mislabeled Stew Leonard's cookie

Jason Marz/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- A wrongful death lawsuit alleges a 25-year-old woman died as a result of "gross negligence and reckless indifference" after eating a cookie sold by the grocery chain Stew Leonard's that was not properly labeled as containing peanuts.

Órla Baxendale, a native of East Lancashire, United Kingdom, who had moved to New York to pursue a career as a dancer, died on Jan. 11 from complications of anaphylaxis due to a peanut allergy, according to the lawsuit.

Baxendale had eaten a Florentine cookie sold by Stew Leonard's that was not labeled as containing peanuts, according to the lawsuit and Connecticut officials. Following her death, the grocery store recalled the seasonal product because it contained undeclared peanuts as well as eggs.

The cookies were produced by Cookies United, a wholesaler based in Islip, New York, and labeled with the Stew Leonard's brand name, Connecticut officials said. Baxendale's death is the only one associated with the mislabeled products, according to Connecticut officials.

Following Baxendale's death, Cookies United said it notified multiple Stew Leonard's employees via email in July 2023 that the cookies now contained peanuts. Stew Leonard's president and CEO Stew Leonard Jr. said at the time that the company's chief safety officer was not notified of the change in the product's recipe.

The lawsuit -- filed Thursday on behalf of the administrators of Baxendale's estate, who include her mother -- alleges that Stew Leonard's and Cookies United were "careless and negligent" in causing her death.

The lawsuit alleges Cookies United failed to properly notify Stew Leonard's that the Florentine cookies contained peanuts, and that Stew Leonard's ignored the notice the company did receive on the ingredient change. It further claims that the systems in place at Stew Leonard's to maintain and update the proper labels were "broken, unreliable, inherently dangerous, undependable, untrustworthy, erratic, and deplorable," further evidenced by additional recalls issued in the wake of the Florentine cookie recall.

"They had all those emails all that time in advance and did nothing about it," Howard Hershenhorn, a senior partner at the law firm Gair, Gair, Conason, Rubinowitz, Bloom, Hershenhorn, Steigman and Mackauf, which filed the lawsuit, told ABC News.

A spokesperson for Stew Leonard's told ABC News the company cannot comment on pending litigation.

ABC News did not immediately hear back from the general counsel for Cookies United to an email seeking comment.

Baxendale was at a house being rented for a dance troupe she was performing with in Connecticut when she ate the cookie, Hershenhorn said. She used an EpiPen and was transported to an area hospital where she died, he said. Baxendale had a severe peanut allergy and was "beyond careful," he said.

The lawsuit is seeking a "substantial amount" of compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial over Baxendale's death, he said.

"In addition to that, it means so much to the family that with this lawsuit, we want to make certain that this never happens again with any food product that Stew Leonard's sells or Cookies United manufactures," Hershenhorn said.

In a video statement released in January, Leonard said the company was "devastated" by the news of her death and defended its label process.

"We bought it from an outside supplier and unfortunately, the supplier changed the recipe and started going from soy nuts to peanuts and our chief safety officer here at Stew Leonard's was never notified," Leonard said.

"We have a very rigorous process that we use as far as labeling. We take labels very seriously, especially peanuts," he continued.

The company said at the time that it was working with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection and the supplier to "determine the cause of the labeling error."

Cookies United said at the time that the death was a "tragedy that should have never happened and our sympathy is with the family of this Stew Leonard's customer."

Walker Flanary, general counsel for Cookies United, said in a statement the company was cooperating with the New York State Department of Agriculture and "have been informed we are in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations relating to this product."

Friday, May 24, 2024 at 3:42PM by Meredith Deliso, ABC News Permalink