Damage done: A worker walks past polony products after they were removed from the shelves of a Pick n Pay outlet in Johannesburg. The strain responsible for 90% of cases of listeria infection was traced to polony made in a Tiger Brands factory in Polokwane. Picture: REUTERS
Damage done: A worker walks past polony products after they were removed from the shelves of a Pick n Pay outlet in Johannesburg. The strain responsible for 90% of cases of listeria infection was traced to polony made in a Tiger Brands factory in Polokwane. Picture: REUTERS

Tiger Brands, still reeling from the effects of the listeriosis outbreak that killed more than 200 people, faces a class-action suit of hundreds of millions of rand after claimants  got the green light to sue the food producer.

Judge Phineas Mojapelo of the South Gauteng High Court granted a certification order on Monday, paving the way for a class-action lawsuit  relating to the outbreak in March. The order is the court’s determination that a class action is the best way deal with listeriosis claims.

Tiger Brands, which has a market capitalisation of R50.9bn and posted a R2.4bn net profit for the year to September, said on Monday it had not set aside money to cover the looming claims.

“We have insurance appropriate for a company of our size in respect of product liability. Our insurers have confirmed that the policy will respond. However, as we have yet to receive an enumerated claim, we cannot determine the extent, if any, of any further exposure,” said spokesperson Nevashnee Naicker.

Tiger Brands did not oppose the certification order. The producer of Enterprise polony, Jungle Oats and Oros said its legal representatives had been working closely with  attorneys for the claimants to agree to the terms of a court order for the certification.

This suggests the parties are disposed  to co-operateand could see the matter wrapped up sooner than with a typical adversarial lawsuit.

“We have committed to acting with honesty and integrity throughout this process and are therefore working closely with the attorneys for the claimants to expedite this matter,” said Tiger Brands chief corporate officer Mary Jane Morifi.

In March, Tiger Brands closed production facilities after a strain of Listeria monocytogenes sequence type 6 (ST6) — believed to be the source of the deadly outbreak — was found at its Polokwane factory. Since then, the group's share price has fallen 31.87%, compared with the JSE all share, which is down 10.07%. 

But the company has denied liability. “However, should liability be determined, the company will respond appropriately to any legitimate claims,” it said on Monday.

Lawyer Richard Spoor, who is leading the class action,  said claimants had a strong case against the company.

He said Tiger Brands had so far co-operated with lawyers for claimants.

Spoor said claimants intended to issue summons early in 2019.

njobenis@businesslive.co.za