Michael HartmannThe court suit by a  family alleging that a young boy became ill from Minnesota farmer Michael Hartmann’s milk in May 2010 may well be headed for a jury trial.

The judge in the case took under advisement the family’s request for summary judgment–complete acceptance of its case. He also encouraged the parties to seek a mediated settlement, as is required under Minnesota law in such cases. It’s generally difficult to get a summary judgment in a product liability suit.

Assuming mediation doesn’t work, the case is scheduled to go to trial in October. As a number of people said in comments following my previous post, Hartmann would seem to face daunting odds, since the evidence linking his farm to the child’s E.coli O157:H7 is so strong, and could wind up a big loser. Our legal system holds food producers responsible if their food is shown to cause illness.  

I spoke briefly with a lawyer representing the family of Owen Caldwell, the boy who became sick, and he said the boy was seriously ill. “The child was on the brink of death,” Michael Hutchens said. “He was on his death bed.”

The boy has since recovered, “and is doing fairly well.”

He suggested that the family isn’t seeking a huge settlement with Hartmann. Rather, it’s the family’s position that the boy “has some compensation coming,” based on the severity of the illness and the genetic linkage between the E.coli 0157:H7 found in the boy and on the Hartmann farm. “They’re not out to villify Hartmann.”

He said Hartmann has been pleading poverty. “Unfortunately, he (Hartmann) did not have insurance.” He accused Hartmann of spending significant sums of money unnecessarily on legal bills, such as $9,000 for a transcript of the case he lost against the state a year ago over the embargo of his products, so he can file an appeal.

Among Hartmann supporters, one of them, Will Winter, wrote after the court session about “looking at the silhouette of the lone farmer MIKE HARTMANN going up against the establishment ALL BY HIMSELF. It was a sight to bring tears to anyone who has tried to raise or produce healthy food for a too-oft ignorant public.”

Winter is a veterinarian and one of the original founders of Traditional Foods Minnesota, the Minneapolis food club shut down in June 2010 by Minneapolis and Minnesota Department of Agriculture officials. So it’s understandable that he is sensitive to government intrusions that threaten our food.

However, this legal case has been undertaken by a family, not a government agency.  

In any event, Winter claims Hartmann “has never gotten written proof of this allegation of matching serotypes.” He also contends the Caldwell family changed its story about what foods the boy had consumed. And he calls into question the way they handled the boy’s illness, noting that “the parents who are both health professionals, he a chiropractor and she a ‘holistic nutritionist’ tolerated bloody diarrhea and other symptoms in the child for THREE DAYS before seeking hospital care. This was never explained but stands out.” Shades of blaming the victim.

This account of the court proceedings, like the original call to Minnesota consumers to show up and support Michael Hartmann in court on Friday, has a bad feel to it, especially in terms of its insensitivity to the Caldwell family. I appreciate what Mark McAfee says following my previous post about Hartmann: “I do not want to see anyone throw him under the bus either. This is an education challenge.”

Indeed it is. We all need to keep educating ourselves about the realities of food safety versus food rights–to learn from situations like that on the Hartmann farm that may have contributed to the illnesses, and to make distinctions as to situations that deserve serious consumer support, and those that may be diversions.
We’re seeing media accounts of raw milk cases that are ever more perceptive and balanced than they once were.

Two recent ones, by major outlets, assess recent government actions against raw dairy producers. 

One is a story from the Associated Press that presents concerns by the South Carolina farmer accused of sickening at least three consumers in North Carolina recently.

Plus, there’s a lengthy account about California’s assault on herdshares, in the Sacramento Bee. It includes much detail about the arguments supporting herdshare arrangements.

Gradually, the media are catching on to the fact that there are two sides to many of the government actions against small producers of nutrient-dense food.