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Matthews v. Yoplait USA, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

October 28, 2019


          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          Hodges, Judge.

         In this consumer food product liability case, Tangerina Matthews appeals a trial court order granting Yoplait USA, Inc.'s motion for summary judgment. Matthews asserts the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Yoplait after determining that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies. Because we conclude the trial court misapplied the doctrine, we reverse and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Under Georgia law,

[s]ummary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A de novo standard of review applies to an appeal from a grant or denial of summary judgment, and we view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.

(Citation and punctuation omitted; emphasis supplied.) Kamara v. Henson, 340 Ga.App. 111 (796 S.E.2d 496) (2017). So viewed, the record reveals that Matthews purchased a small container of strawberry yogurt manufactured and packaged by Yoplait. Matthews alleged the container remained sealed until she opened it while driving her daughter to work. While in her car, Matthews opened the container, stirred it with a plastic spoon, and began eating, thinking the crunching sensation she felt was caused by the strawberries. However, according to Matthews, she realized that, after swallowing, sharp metal fragments were present in the yogurt. Matthews immediately felt throat pain, realized her lips or gums were bleeding, parked her vehicle, and called 911. At the hospital, Matthews underwent an endoscopy, and the doctors gave her husband the metal fragments removed from her gastrointestinal tract. According to Matthews, the doctor removed 17 metal fragments, measuring over 1.5mm in size, from her stomach.

         Matthews sued Yoplait for negligence under OCGA § 51-1-23, negligence per se for violation of the Georgia Food Act, OCGA § 26-2-20 et seq., and expenses of litigation. Yoplait filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that (1) the quality assurance procedures in its facility, including strainers, screens, and an x-ray machine, would have caught the metal flakes, given their size and number, if they derived from Yoplait, (2) expert testing confirmed the metal flakes were composed primarily of carbon and iron and "did not likely originate" from the Yoplait facility because Yoplait, in accordance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, does not use the type of metal comprising the flakes in its facility, and (3) the nature of Yoplait's manufacturing process makes it impossible for the metal flakes to have been deposited in only one yogurt container, and Yoplait has not had any other complaint of metal flakes in its yogurt.

         In response, Matthews argued that, despite these contentions, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur creates a genuine issue of material fact for the jury to decide the issue of negligence because there is no other explanation for the presence of the metal flakes in the sealed yogurt container other than Yoplait's negligence. Matthews noted that Yoplait's senior quality control manager at the facility where the subject yogurt was packaged admitted that "metal inclusion is a significant hazard in the manufacturing and processing of Yoplait yogurt[.]" In fact, according to the senior quality control manager, the control of metal inclusion is an important part of Yoplait's manufacturing and packaging operation, and the Yoplait facility checks for it at least every four hours, and more often if there is a change or startup. The quality control manager testified that although she has "very rarely" seen metal in yogurt, it is "not unheard of[, ]" and she recalled that metal dusting from pieces of a gasket had previously contaminated yogurt, but was discovered before leaving the plant. She agreed that metal inclusion in yogurt due to equipment with metal parts would be unlikely, but could occur.

         In addition, Matthews submitted a Yoplait report for the date the yogurt at issue was packaged indicating that cups tipped over and the production line subsequently was repaired prior to the subject yogurt being sealed. However, Yoplait noted that despite a jam for a tipped yogurt cup during production of Matthews's product, the manufacturing records for that date indicated the x-ray machine passed all checks, and no foreign material was detected.

         Matthews further noted that although Yoplait uses multiple screens and strainers to remove foreign objects from the yogurt during the manufacturing process, these screens and strainers are used before fruit is added to the yogurt. The only check for foreign substances after the addition of fruit is the x-ray machine through which the sealed yogurt containers pass. However, while Yoplait's senior quality control manager testified that she believed Yoplait's x-ray machine would have detected the size and quantity of the metal fragments swallowed by Matthews, the x-ray machine would have been calibrated not to detect "particulates" of the same "differential" or "density" as strawberries. The senior quality control manager could not definitively state that the density of the metal flakes was different from the strawberry density because she had not examined the metal fragments; she believed it was "highly unlikely[, ]" but "[n]ot impossible[, ]" that the x-ray machine would not have alerted to the metal flakes.

         Following oral argument and a review of the parties' briefs and the complete record, the State Court of Clayton County found that

based on the evidence in the record of the case at this time, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur does apply. There is an inference that the metal flakes were inserted into the yogurt container prior to the container being sealed, as it was sealed when it left the manufacturer, and sealed before opened by [Matthews] to consume.

         (Emphasis in original.) Nonetheless, the trial court further found that "[Yoplait's] evidence of the manufacturing process, however, does overcome that inference[.]" The court then detailed evidence demonstrating that the metal flakes likely were not the result of Yoplait's manufacturing or packaging process and granted summary judgment to Yoplait. This appeal followed.

         In two related enumerations of error, Matthews first contends that the trial court erred in granting Yoplait's motion for summary judgment after it determined res ipsa loquitur applied. Matthews further argues that, even if res ipsa loquitur did not apply, genuine issues of material fact precluded judgment in Yoplait's favor. For the ...

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