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Family of woman killed from listeria outbreak linked to Sarasota creamery awarded $4M

Mary Billman's family sued, and a federal judge determined Big Olaf Creamery showed a conscious disregard for her safety.

SARASOTA, Fla. — A family of a woman killed from a listeria outbreak linked to a Sarasota creamery, which also sickened dozens of others, was awarded $4 million.

Mary Billman's family sued, and a federal judge determined Big Olaf Creamery showed a conscious disregard for her safety. But even after winning in court, Billman's family says money won't bring back the woman they loved.

The last video taken of the great-grandmother on Siesta Key Beach was just days before she suffered a preventable death after eating a cup of ice cream contaminated with listeria, according to the family.

"I can't even believe it happened," Billman's daughter Richelle Brown said. "It was fast. It was sudden – going from completely normal and being my mom to nothing."

The lawsuit was filed back in July 2022, claiming Billman was visiting her daughter on Jan. 18, 2022, in Florida when she ate ice cream at the Big Olaf Creamery.

By Jan. 25, the lawsuit says Billman had developed gastrointestinal issues, a low-grade fever and a urinary tract infection. On Jan. 27, she was rushed to the hospital with a fever of more than 103 degrees.

"Over the course of the next two days, Mrs. Billman's organs began to shut down due to her septic illness," the lawsuit said. "By the time her family was able to see her again, she was unconscious."

Her family says she never regained consciousness and died on Jan. 29, leaving behind her husband, three daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandkids.

"The loss is too much to bear," Brown said. "She was like the most bubbly person. She was just really, she'd light up a room. She never met a stranger.

"It's very, very difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that something that you gave her is what ended up killing her."

In a July 2 food safety alert, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 22 other people had been hospitalized across 10 states due to the listeria outbreak. The ice cream is only sold in Florida, and most of the people who have been sickened reported traveling to the state shortly before symptoms began.

10 Investigates discovered for at least eight days after the CDC issued a warning that people should not eat it, some retailers continued to serve Big Olaf ice cream.

"To find out that you still chose to sell it after July 1, it's heartbreaking," Brown said. "I mean, my mom mattered. My mom's life mattered. Our lives will never be the same and so that makes me angry, and it makes me very sad."

Sixteen of 17 samples tested at the Big Olaf's manufacturing plant contained listeria. The company never showed up in court to defend itself.

And now, in a default judgment from the U.S. District Jude Willaim Jung, Big Olaf is ordered to pay the Billman family $4 million.

"What it just shows is the court was convinced that Big Olaf was acting with conscious disregard," the Billman's family attorney Bill Marler explained. "That's the same standard, frankly, that the Department of Justice would look at in deciding whether or not to levy criminal sanctions against them as well. 

"So, I don't think Big Olafs and the owners of Big Olafs are, you know, certainly not out of the woods yet."

The great-grandmother was also the primary caretaker of her husband, who has Dementia. The Billman family already settled a claim against the restaurant that sold the contaminated Big Olaf Ice Cream.

10 Tampa Bay reached out to Big Olaf Creamery for comment about the $4 million judgment but has not heard back.

10 Tampa Bay's Stephen Adams contributed to this report.

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