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Big Award In Candy Death

SAN MATEO COUNTY JUDGE OKS $50 MILLION FOR FAMILY

Jul 12, 2003 | San Jose Mercury News

A San Mateo County judge awarded $50 million Friday to a Texas family whose 20-month-old son died in 2001 after choking on a piece of gel candy.

The gel candy maker, Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods of Taiwan, had failed to follow certain legal procedures in the case, and a judge on June 26 declared it in default, effectively making the family the winners in the suit.

``There is no worse loss to a person than the unexpected death of a child,'' Superior Court Judge Mark Forcum said.

Forcum added that he found the candy company ``offensive'' for producing ``defective, dangerous candies'' while fully aware of the hazards and that children would be attracted to them.

``This is the type of case that punitive damages is designed for, to punish this type of misconduct,'' he said.

It's unlikely the family will see a penny of Friday's award for at least a couple of years because of the difficulty in enforcing the order in a foreign country.

In May, a Santa Clara County judge ordered the same gel candy maker to pay $16.7 million to the Enrile family of San Jose, whose 11-year-old daughter also died from choking on a gel candy. Another Santa Clara County lawsuit, concerning a 3-year-old Morgan Hill boy who died the same way, is scheduled to go to trial in August.

In October 2001, after the Mercury News wrote about Michelle Enrile's death and others caused by the sticky candies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned their importation.

Hongli Jing and his wife, Aibing Li, sued Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods last year after their 20-month-old son, Jeffrey, choked on a lichee gel candy on Feb. 22, 2001, went into a coma and died about a week later.

The Jing family filed the wrongful death lawsuit in San Mateo County because they mistakenly believed at the time that a distributor of the candies was based in the area.

Hongli Jing, Jeffrey's father, was present at Friday's hearing and began to cry as his lawyer played a videotape that showed family members discussing the pain Jeffrey's death had caused, Danko said.

``We lost our Jeffrey and it makes our heart broken,'' said Jing, a China native, on the videotape. ``All the things we dreamed, that Aibing and I planned, will not be realized. . . . When Jeffrey was with us, our hearts were full of joy. When Jeffrey is gone, our life is empty.''

Added Li: ``We look the same physically but psychologically we are not normal anymore.''

After the videotape was shown, Forcum awarded $25 million apiece to the parents and $2,538 to the family for legal fees.

``We're very glad we're able to get the word out on these candies,'' Danko said, ``so others won't have to suffer the same loss.''

Since the Enriles won their suit, Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods has recoiled, in the legal sense, from defending itself. In the Jing case, it refused to make witnesses available to Jing's attorney to interview, which is a legal requirement.

Now attorneys for the Jing family and the Enriles will have to ask Taiwanese courts to recognize the awards and to order Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods to pay, he said.

``It adds a substantial layer of complexity to efforts to collect and enforce a judgment,'' Ogloza said.

Yvonne Enrile, the mother of 11-year-old Michelle, who died in 1999, said she's ``elated'' for the Jing family and is not very bothered that a payout from the candy company hasn't come.

``We're not thinking about the money,'' she said. ``We're just so happy there's justice.''


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