Denis W. Stearns is a former principal in Marler Clark. He is currently Of Counsel at the firm.
Denis Stearns was a founding partner of Marler Clark, LLP, PS, a Seattle-based law firm with a national practice devoted to the representation of persons injured by unsafe food and drink. He also works to promote food safety through educational speaking and pro bono consulting with the food industry. In January 2011, Stearns became a professor at the Seattle University School of Law, changing his status to Of Counsel at the firm, where he continues to practice in a supporting role.
Stearns began his involvement in food-related litigation in 1993 as one of the lead defense attorneys handling the cases arising from the historic Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in January 1993. Mr. Stearns was responsible for designing and implementing a discovery plan that allowed Foodmaker to present a consistent and successful defense in over one hundred lawsuits spread among several states. In this role, Mr. Stearns obtained extensive knowledge and experience in litigation that involves complex manufacturing systems, foodborne illnesses, and issues of quality control. He also became noted for a highly principled, but persistent, approach to the discovery process and is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer on ethics and the law. Since helping to found Marler Clark twelve years ago, he has worked on hundreds of food outbreak cases, including recent ones involving E. coli O157:H7-contaminated Dole spinach, Salmonella in Peter Pan peanut butter and Banquet pot pies, and a spate of outbreaks involving E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, Nestlé cookie dough, and raw milk.
Mr. Stearns graduated from Seattle University with a degree in philosophy and obtained his law degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a frequent author and speaker on a wide variety of topics related to food, law, economics, and policy, and is the author of two book-chapters, a law journal article, and numerous other articles, essays, and opinion pieces. His article most recent article, which is entitled “ON (CR)EDIBILITY: Why Food in the U.S. May Never Be Safe,” will be published April this year in Stanford Law & Policy Review. He also has had an article published in the Journal of Food Law & Policy, titled “Preempting Food Safety: An Examination of USDA Rulemaking and its E. coli O157:H7 Policy in Light of Estate of Kriefall ex rel. Kriefall v. Excel Corporation.” (PDF)
Mr. Stearns has written several articles regarding product liability law and subjects related to foodborne illness litigation. He recently wrote a series for the on-line newsletter, ID Access:
- Product Liability: A Brief History of Its Early Origins (PDF)
- Product Liability: How It Turned Strict (PDF)
- Chain of Distribution Liability: Tag, You’re It (PDF)
- Product Distributor Liability: Some Different Scenarios (PDF)
- Indemnification, Contribution, and Allocation of Fault: Shifting the Blame (PDF)
- Intentional Contamination: Liability for the Criminal Acts of Employees (PDF).
Mr. Stearns partnered with Marler Clark epidemiologist Patti Waller to write an article titled, “Where’s the Meat? The Need for Full Public Disclosure in Meat Recalls” (PDF) on the topic of public disclosure of the names of retail outlets that received potentially contaminated meat during a meat recall for the Journal of Environmental Health’s June 2006 issue, and authored “Intentional Contamination: The Legal Risks and Responsibilities,” (PDF) an article that answers the question of whether a company can be held liable for the criminal acts of an employee who decides, for whatever reason, to contaminate food products that then go on to make a number of people sick.
He has also written two book chapters: One wrote a chapter titled, “A Future Uncertain: Food Irradiation from a Legal Perspective,” for the Institute of Food Technologists’ book on Food Irradiation Research and Technology and another titled, “Contaminated Fresh Produce and Product Liability: A Law-in-Action Perspective,” for the an IFT book, Microbial Safety of Fresh Produce: Challenges, Perspectives and Strategies.
Other articles Mr. Stearns has written include:
- An Introduction to Product Liability Law
- An E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak at a Chain Restaurant: A Case Study on How Easily Legal Liability Can Spread to a Franchisor
- Why Hepatitis A Vaccinations are Bad for (My) Business
- E. coli Lawsuit Results in a $4.75 Million Jury Award For Injured Children: A Case Study In How Not to Learn About Food Safety
- The Courage to Criticize
In addition to his work for Marler Clark, Mr. Stearns is active in the King County Bar Association pro bono program, Volunteer Attorneys for People with AIDS. Mr. Stearns was for nine years on the Board of Directors for The Bailey-Boushay House, America’s first skilled nursing facility that was planned, founded, built and staffed to meet the needs of people living with AIDS.
Mr. Stearns has an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell.