Grocer, Baker Face Lawsuit over Dancer’s Fatal Allergic Reaction

in Food Allergy, Food Allergy News
Published: May 24, 2024

A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed over the fatal allergic reaction of dancer Órla Baxendale, who died after eating a cookie that wasn’t labeled for peanut. She had a severe peanut allergy. 

Grocer, Baker Face Lawsuit over Dancer's Fatal Allergic Reaction
Órla Baxendale

The family is suing the Connecticut-based Stew Leonard’s supermarket chain, individual store employees, and the supplier Cookies United.

The case will “bring permanent changes to the Stew Leonard’s operation, so that a senseless and avoidable tragedy like this will never occur again,” attorney Howard Hershenhorn told Allergic Living.

The legal action also will bring “substantial monetary compensation that the family is entitled to under U.S. law,” says Hershenhorn. He’s a partner in the New York City firm Gair, Gair, Conason, Rubinowitz, Bloom, Hershenhorn, Steigman, and Mackauf.

The firm filed the wrongful death complaint on May 23, 2024, in the Connecticut Superior Court on behalf of Baxendale’s family. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, costs and any other relief the court deems appropriate. 

It notes the tragic loss for Órla’s parents Angela and Simon Baxendale, and her three siblings, who live in England.

“All consumers and especially those in the food allergy community rely on the integrity of supermarkets to properly disclose ingredients so as to not poison or kill those who purchase their food products,” the firm said in a news release.

Lawsuit Charges ‘Gross Negligence’

Baxendale was 25 when she died on January 11, 2024 after suffering anaphylactic shock. The New York City-based dancer always checked food labels closely because of her severe peanut allergy. But she couldn’t have known about the cookie she ate containing peanut – because it wasn’t listed in the cookie package’s ingredients, her attorney says. 

The supplier Cookies United made these Vanilla Florentine Cookies, which were purchased at a Stew Leonard’s store in Connecticut. The label also had a “contains” statement showing allergens, but peanut wasn’t shown there either. 

The Baxendale lawsuit holds Stew Leonard’s and Cookies United accountable for mislabeling the cookie package as legally required under federal and state laws. 

The FDA requires the top 9 allergens to be clearly labeled on packaged foods under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). The lawsuit also accuses the defendants of violating the food safety practices outlined in the FDA Food Code.

“The failure to properly label the package … was grossly negligent, intentional, reckless, callous, indifferent to human life, and a wanton violation,” the suit states.

Peanut Missing on the Label

Soon after Órla Baxendale’s death, the New York-based supplier and Stew Leonard’s each blamed the other for the inaccurate cookie labels. 

Stew Leonard Jr., the company CEO, said in a video statement that the supplier had failed to tell the supermarket the Florentine cookies’ ingredients had changed to include peanut. 

But Cookies United said in its statement that it did send the grocer notice in July 2023 of the update. The company says it emailed several employees to inform them that “soy nuts” would change to “peanuts” in the Florentine holiday cookies shipped to Stew Leonard’s.

The Baxendale lawsuit accuses Stew Leonard’s of ignoring the supplier’s July email. It also alleges the baker “failed to properly warn” the supermarket that the cookies would contain peanut. 

Stew Leonard’s declined to comment for this article, while Cookies United did not reply to Allergic Living’s request for comment.

Dancer Órla’s Legacy

Órla Baxendale was a talented dancer, who had moved to New York City in 2018 from England to pursue her performance career.

She danced at The Ailey School when she arrived in New York. In addition, she performed with various dance companies in the New York City area. At the time of her death, Baxendale was performing as Alice in Wonderland in a production of “Alice”. She was with the Momix Dance Company, based in Washington, Connecticut.

The dancer is remembered for her talent and “joyful spirit.” Colleagues and friends also have noted her vigilance about food allergies. She always carried two epinephrine auto-injectors, and was careful about what she ate. Hershenhorn previously told Allergic Living that her two EpiPens were used during her severe anaphylactic reaction. But they were not enough to save her. 

The wrongful death lawsuit aims to ensure that supermarkets and their employees also take food allergies seriously. 

“The systems in place at Stew Leonard’s used by them to maintain and update the proper labels was broken, unreliable, inherently dangerous, undependable, untrustworthy, erratic, and deplorable,” the complaint states.

Baxendale leaves behind a loving family that is “devastated,” the law firm’s press release states.

“This lawsuit has to make a big difference to the allergy community. This death cannot go in vain,” Hershenhorn says. 

Related Reading: 
Investigation into Cookies That Led to Dancer’s Allergy Tragedy
FDA Advice to Food Makers to Cut Food Allergy Label Errors