A Delaware Superior Court judge has imposed a limited gag order on a class-action lawsuit against Mountaire Farms.
Commissioner Alicia Howard’s order is designed to prevent people involved in the case from making public comments outside the courtroom. Howard handed down her ruling Oct. 30 after a hearing where Chase Brockstedt, attorney for lead plaintiffs Gary and Anne-Marie Cuppels, sought the order to prevent a public relations blitz by Mountaire that Brockstedt argued would taint the jury pool at trial.
In her ruling, Howard said while there is very little case law on this subject, she agreed with Brockstedt’s assertion that the case should be tried in court, not in the media. Her order prevents attorneys, experts, consultants, witnesses for both parties, the individual plaintiffs and anyone acting in a public relations capacity for Mountaire from making extrajudicial comments that could prejudice the jury pool. Howard cites rules for professional conduct for Delaware lawyers, which state lawyers should refrain from making statements to the media other than the basic facts of the case.
Howard’s ruling does not apply to all Mountaire employees, although she writes that if it comes to the court’s attention that employees are arguing Mountaire’s case to general members of the public, she will extend the order to individual employees.
The Cuppels case was filed in June after both Cuppels were hospitalized with gastrointestinal issues. At an Oct. 26 court hearing, Brockstedt said shortly after that, the Cuppels received a pallet of water “from your friends at Mountaire.” Curious whether their gastrointestinal problems were related to contamination of their drinking water by Mountaire’s Millsboro facility, they contacted Brockstedt, who started an investigation with expert witnesses.
Both sides then took their cases public, first Mountaire with newspaper ads and a town hall event. Then Brockstedt, co-counsel Phil Federico and their experts held a press conference and issued a press release.
At the Oct. 26 hearing, Brockstedt asked for a gag order to prevent further media statements, ads or public relations. Mountaire attorney Michael Arrington opposed the gag order, saying it would be impossible to enforce - the class in the suit includes 750 people. Plus, he said, the plaintiffs already held a press conference where their experts testified.