Supermarket sued after dancer with 'severe peanut allergy' dies eating mislabeled cookies, suit claims

The family of a 25-year-old New York City professional dancer with a "severe peanut allergy" filed a civil lawsuit claiming she died due to the "gross negligence" of a supermarket that sold her mislabeled cookies.

Órla Ruth Baxendale died on Jan. 11 from an anaphylactic shock after having an allergic reaction to a cookie containing "undeclared peanuts," according to the complaint filed May 23 in the Superior Court in Waterbury, Connecticut. Stew Leonard's, the chain of supermarkets the suit holds culpable for Baxendale's death, sold the dancer the Florentine Cookies, the legal document obtained by USA TODAY continued.

"The failure to properly label the package prior to the distribution and sale of the Florentine Cookie(s) was grossly negligent, intentional, reckless, callous, indifferent to human life, and a wanton violation as the manufacturer and seller were required under the law to properly declare the ingredients," according to the complaint.

Baxendale's family is seeking to claim damages over $15,000 and other relief, the complaint says.

"The evidence of Stew Leonard’s liability for both compensatory and punitive damages is startling and overwhelming," according to the suit. "The evidence clearly shows that a deadly cookie sold and packaged by Stew Leonard’s killed Órla Ruth Baxendale who was in the prime of her life and caused her parents Angela and Simon Baxendale to suffer the loss of their child."

Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco, Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera, and Paramus police officers handed out over 300 frozen turkeys to those in need outside of Stew Leonard's in Paramus on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco, Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera, and Paramus police officers handed out over 300 frozen turkeys to those in need outside of Stew Leonard's in Paramus on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

Stew Leonard's emailed about change in ingredients months before Orla Baxendale's death

Six months before Baxendale's death, the complaint says "no less than eleven employees" of Stew Leonard's were "notified by email of the change in ingredients, including the addition of peanuts to the cookie recipe" by the cookies' manufacturer, Cookies United. The complaint also names Cookies United as a defendant.

"Despite the email notification of these changes, (Stew Leonard’s) ignored the email and never changed the label or the nutrition fact panel and never properly updated the packaging," according to the legal filing.

Recalled Stew Leonard's Florentine Cookies
Recalled Stew Leonard's Florentine Cookies

Cookies United corroborated the Baxendale family's claims on Jan. 23 when the manufacturer issued a press release, which the suit notes has since been taken off its website.

"Stew Leonard’s claimed in an earlier press release that 'The cookies contain peanuts, which was an ingredient not disclosed to Stew Leonard’s by the manufacturer,'" the now-deleted statement said, per the lawsuit. "... Stew Leonard’s was notified by Cookies United in July of 2023 that this product now contains peanuts and all products shipped to them have been labeled accordingly. This product is sold under the Stew Leonard’s brand and repackaged at their facilities."

"The incorrect label was created by, and applied to, their product by Stew Leonard’s," the Cookies United statement read, per the lawsuit.

In an email sent to USA TODAY on Wednesday, a spokesperson for Stew Leonard's said," On the advice of our legal counsel, we can’t comment on pending litigation." USA TODAY contacted Cookies United but did not receive a response.

Recall issued for Vanilla Florentine Cookies by FDA

A recall for Vanilla Florentine Cookies was issued by Stew Leonard's, based in Norwalk, Connecticut, around the time of Baxendale's death. The recall applied to any of the particular cookies sold at Stew Leonard's in Danbury and Newington, Connecticut on the dates Nov. 6 through Dec. 31, 2023.

A recall statement issued in January said one death had been reported in connection to the Vanilla Florentine Cookies, the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection Food, Standards and Product Safety Division (DCP) said.

Baxendale ate the cookies while at a social gathering in Connecticut, according to the DCP. The mislabeled Florentine Cookies with a best-by date of Jan. 5, 2024, were made at a bakery in Islip, New York, the department said.

'It's a sad day for us'

Stew Leonard Jr., Stew Leonard's president, issued a video statement posted on the supermarket chain's website in January saying, "It's a sad day for us. We learned a customer passed who had a peanut allergy who bought a cookie here."

Stew Leonard's bought the now-recalled cookies from an outside supplier and sold about 500 affected packages over the holidays, Leonard Jr. said in the video.

'Unfortunately, the supplier changed the recipe and started going from soy nuts to peanuts and our company's chief safety officer was never notified," the executive said. "We take labeling very serious especially when it comes to peanuts."

The suit says Leonard Jr.'s statement was an "admission of guilt."

'Órla Baxendale was an embodiment of enthusiasm, strength and beauty'

Originally from East Lancashire, in the United Kingdom, Baxendale moved to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a world-class dancer.

Baxendale is described in her obituary as a "bright soul" who lived "each day as a celebration."

"Órla Baxendale was an embodiment of enthusiasm, strength and beauty," according to the obituary. "Known for her quirky character and boundless love for those around her, she was a source of joy and inspiration to everyone. Her presence was a constant reminder to live life to its fullest, a lesson she embraced wholeheartedly and urged others to adopt."

Before her death, Baxendale worked with The Alvin Ailey School, Nemacolin Holiday Village, Steps on Broadway, The Ride, Club Pilates, English with an Accent, MOMIX and many others. The suit says she was a scholarship student at Alvin Ailey School and "performed in many successful productions and was widely considered a superstar in the dance community."

"Her passion for dance extended well beyond a single discipline as she was an exquisite ballet, contemporary, and Irish step dancer," according to the obituary. "Each endeavor she undertook became a testament to her dedication and passion, leaving a lasting impact on many lives."

Contributing: Natalie Neysa Alund, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stew Leonard's store sued after death of dancer Órla Ruth Baxendale