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Stew Leonard’s store sued after dancer Órla Ruth Baxendale’s death

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The family of a 25-year-old professional dancer from New York City with a “severe peanut allergy” filed a civil lawsuit, claiming she died due to the “gross negligence” of a supermarket that sold her mislabeled cookies.

Órla Ruth Baxendale died Jan. 11 of anaphylactic shock after having an allergic reaction to a cookie containing “undeclared peanuts,” according to the complaint filed May 23 in Superior Court in Waterbury, Connecticut. Stew Leonard’s, the grocery chain that the lawsuit alleges is responsible for Baxendale’s death, sold the dancer the Florentine Cookies, the legal document obtained by USA TODAY continues.

“The failure to properly label the package prior to the distribution and sale of the Florentine Cookie(s) was grossly negligent, willful, reckless, callous, indifferent to human life, and a willful violation, as the manufacturer and seller, according to were required by law to properly list the ingredients,” the complaint states.

Baxendale’s family is seeking more than $15,000 in damages and other relief, the complaint said.

“The evidence of Stew Leonard’s liability for both compensatory and punitive damages is startling and overwhelming,” the complaint said. “It is clear from the evidence that a deadly biscuit sold and packaged by Stew Leonard killed Órla Ruth Baxendale, who was in the prime of her life, and caused her parents Angela and Simon Baxendale to suffer the loss of their child have suffered.”

Stew Leonard sent an email about the change in ingredients months before Orla Baxendale’s death

Six months before Baxendale’s death, the complaint states that “no fewer than eleven employees” of Stew Leonard’s “were notified by email of the change in ingredients, including the addition of peanuts to the cookie recipe” by the cookie manufacturer, Cookies United. The complaint also names Cookies United as a defendant.

“Despite email notification of these changes, Stew Leonard’s ignored the email and never changed the label or nutritional information panel or properly updated the packaging,” the legal filings said.

Cookies United confirmed the Baxendale family’s claims on January 23 when the manufacturer issued a press release, which has since been removed from its website, according to the complaint.

“Stew Leonard’s claimed in an earlier press release that ‘the cookies contain peanuts, an ingredient that was not disclosed to Stew Leonard’s by the manufacturer,’” the now-deleted statement said, according to the lawsuit. “…Stew Leonard’s was notified by Cookies United in July 2023 that this product now contains peanuts and all products shipped to them are labeled accordingly. This product is sold under the Stew Leonard’s brand and repackaged in their facilities.”

“The incorrect label was created by and applied to their product by Stew Leonard’s,” Cookies United’s statement said, according to the lawsuit.

In an email sent to USA TODAY on Wednesday, a spokesperson for Stew Leonard’s said: “On the advice of our legal counsel, we cannot comment on pending litigation.” USA TODAY reached out to Cookies United but did not receive a response.

FDA recall of Vanilla Florentine Cookies

A recall for Vanilla Florentine Cookies was issued by Stew Leonard’s, located in Norwalk, Connecticut, around the time of Baxendale’s death. The recall affected all specific cookies sold at Stew Leonard’s in Danbury and Newington, Connecticut on the dates of November 6 through December 31, 2023.

A January recall notice noted that one death had been reported associated with the Vanilla Florentine Cookies, according to the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection Food, Standards and Product Safety Division (DCP).

According to the DCP, Baxendale ate the cookies at a social gathering in Connecticut. The mislabeled Florentine cookies with a best-by date of Jan. 5, 2024, were made at a bakery in Islip, New York, the department said.

‘It’s a sad day for us’

Stew Leonard Jr., the president of Stew Leonard, posted a video statement on the supermarket chain’s website in January saying, “It’s a sad day for us. We learned of a customer with a peanut allergy who came in here bought a cookie.”

Stew Leonard’s purchased the now-recalled cookies from a third-party supplier and sold about 500 affected packages during the holiday season, Leonard Jr. said. in the video.

“Unfortunately, the supplier changed the recipe from soy nuts to peanuts, and our company’s chief safety officer was never notified,” the executive said. “We take labeling very seriously, especially when it comes to peanuts.”

According to the lawsuit, Leonard Jr.’s statement was an ‘admission of guilt’.

‘Órla Baxendale was an embodiment of enthusiasm, strength and beauty’

Originally from East Lancashire, UK, Baxendale moved to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a world-class dancer.

Baxendale is described in her obituary as a “bright soul” who lived “every day like a party.”

“Órla Baxendale was an embodiment of enthusiasm, strength and beauty,” the obituary said. “Known for her quirky character and boundless love for those around her, she was a source of joy and inspiration to all. Her presence was a constant reminder to live life to the fullest, a lesson she wholeheartedly embraced and taught others encouraged to take it over.”

Before her death, Baxendale worked with The Alvin Ailey School, Nemacolin Holiday Village, Steps on Broadway, The Ride, Club Pilates, English with an Accent, MOMIX and many others. The suit states that she was a scholarship student at the Alvin Ailey School and “performed in many successful productions and was widely regarded as a superstar in the dance community.”

“Her passion for dance extended far beyond any single discipline as she was an outstanding ballet, contemporary and Irish step dancer,” the obituary said. “Every venture she undertook became a testament to her dedication and passion, leaving a lasting impact on many lives.”

Contributing: Natalie Neysa Alund, USA TODAY

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