A Delaware Superior Court judge has upheld a partial gag order in a class-action lawsuit brought against Mountaire Farms.
Judge Richard F. Stokes, in an effort to not prejudice a jury at trial, agreed with a prior ruling restricting public statements outside the courtroom.
The case against Mountaire was filed in June by Gary and Anne-Marie Cuppels, after the Millsboro couple were hospitalized with gastrointestinal issues. The Cuppelses believed that their health problems were related to drinking water contaminated by Mountaire’s Millsboro chicken plant and hired attorney Chase Brockstedt, who began investigating their case.
Both sides then took their case public, first Mountaire with newspaper ads and a town hall event, followed by Brockstedt and co-counsel Phil Federico holding a press conference with their experts.
A hearing was convened on Oct. 26 in which Brockstedt asked for a gag order to prevent further media statements, ads or public relations. Mountaire’s attorney, Michael Arrington, argued against a gag order, saying it would be impossible to enforce - the class in the suit consists of 750 people - and that the plaintiffs had already held a press conference where their expert witnesses offered their opinions. The hearing was presided over by Commissioner Alicia Howard, commissioners being designated judicial officers who can hear pretrial motions.
Howard and Stokes agreed that the the case should not be tried through the media and that a back-and-forth of public statements would negatively influence the jury pool.
Howard’s ruling, upheld by Stokes, prevents attorneys, experts, consultants, witnesses for both sides, individual plaintiffs and anyone acting in a public relations capacity for Mountaire from making comments outside the courtroom other than basic facts of the case.
The ruling does not apply to all Mountaire employees, but if employees are found arguing Mountaire’s case to general members of the public, the gag order could be extended to individual employees.
“The purpose of the order is to provide guidance to the parties going forward,” Stokes wrote in his ruling. “The court has the authority to issue a gag order when there is a substantial likelihood of material prejudice to the parties’ rights to a fair trial. The determination is a balanced one. Its terms apply to both litigants.”