updated 1/27/2009 7:05:29 PM ET 2009-01-28T00:05:29

The relatives of a 72-year-old woman whose death may be linked to the widespread peanut butter salmonella outbreak have sued the operators of a Georgia peanut butter plant and an Ohio distributor saying their negligence caused her death.

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Relatives of Shirley Mae Almer filed the wrongful death lawsuit Monday in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis, attorney Fred Pritzker said Tuesday.

The complaint says her death was a direct result of eating peanut putter infected by a salmonella strain linked to the nationwide outbreak.

Almer, who had been staying temporarily in a nursing home in Brainerd, Minn., near her home in Perham in central Minnesota, died Dec. 21.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the outbreak may have contributed to eight deaths nationwide. As of Monday, the CDC said more than 501 people in 43 states have been sickened since September.

Product recalls
More than 390 products — from energy bars to cookies to dog biscuits — have been recalled due to possible contamination. Authorities have said jars of peanut butter available commercially should not be affected.

Among other accusations, Almer's family alleges Lynchburg, Va.-based manufacturer Peanut Corp. of America and distributor King Nut, of Solon, Ohio, failed to train and supervise employees properly and failed to make, store and transport their products in a safe manner.

Salmonella cases

Peanut Corp. said in a statement that it has cooperated with authorities since the beginning of the investigation.

"We have shared with them every record that they have asked for that is in our possession and we will continue to do so," the company said.

King Nut did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Peanut Corp. issued a recall for peanut butter made since July 1 at its plant in Blakely, Ga., because of possible salmonella contamination. The company supplies peanut paste to many companies for use in other products, like cookies, crackers and ice cream and for serving in institutions like nursing homes and hospitals.

Salmonella, a bacteria that is the most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S., triggers diarrhea, cramping and fever. It can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections, especially in young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

History of problems
Federal health officials said Tuesday that the Blakely plant has a history of problems it failed to fix. They also said Peanut Corp. repeatedly shipped products in which its own initial tests found salmonella.

Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said "there is certainly a salmonella problem in the plant." Officials have found four strains of the bacteria at the plant.

Pritzker, the attorney, said Almer's family was told Jan. 6 that she had a salmonella infection when she died.

Peanut Corp. issued its recall after an open container of King Nut peanut butter in a long-term care facility in Minnesota was found to contain a strain of salmonella.

Almer, a two-time cancer survivor, owned a bowling alley in Wadena, Minn., between Perham and Brainerd. She had been in the nursing home for two to three weeks to recuperate from cancer treatments and other ailments, Pritzker said. Her family, including five children who live in the area, had planned to move her out of the nursing home so she could go home for Christmas, he said. But she got sick and was sent to the hospital where she died.

The family's lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $50,000.

Last week, a South Burlington, Vt., couple whose young son was hospitalized with salmonella poisoning after eating peanut butter crackers also sued Peanut Corp. Gabrielle and Daryl Meunier's son, Christopher, 7, took ill Nov. 25, one day after eating Keebler Cheese & Peanut Butter Sandwich crackers, according to his mother. The boy has since recovered.

That case was filed in U.S. District Court in Georgia.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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