KENYA – Coca-Cola has three months to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with 64 people who claim to have fallen ill after taking contaminated soda, a Kisumu court has ruled. Principal magistrate Thomas Obutu on Friday allowed a request by Equator Bottlers, Coca-Cola’s Kisumu franchise, to reach an out-of-court settlement with the residents of Funyula in Busia County and the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs).

The residents accuse the soft drinks firm of selling them substandard soda that led to shock and anxiety, running stomach, headache and vomiting among other complications.

The sodas were allegedly sold between October 2013 and January 2014.

“I have been advised by our advocates that in order to facilitate the efficient and expeditious resolution of the dispute, negotiation or mediation would be a more suitable mode of resolving this dispute,” said Equator Bottler’s management systems and consumer response co-ordinator Esther Achoki in her written submission to the court.

Documents filed in court show that the victims are demanding payment of up to Sh500,000 each, which could see Coca-Cola spend at least Sh32 million to settle the case.

Kebs carried out investigations following complaints by the victims and on May 30, the Equator Bottlers CEO Enrique Huguet was charged with manufacturing and selling sub-standard soda.

The prosecution said the company was liable for “manufacturing and offering for sale carbonated soft drinks found not to comply with the standard EAS 29:2000 East African Standard Specification for Carbonated Soft Drinks, contrary to sections 9 (2) and subsection 9(4) as read together with section 15 of the Standards Act Cap 496 Laws of Kenya”.

Mr Huguet denied the charge before Mr Obutu and was released on a Sh250,000 cash bail. During Friday’s court session, Equator Bottlers asked Mr Obutu to give it time for negotiations as there had been talks even before the company’s chief executive was charged in court.

Equator Bottlers, through lawyer Cecil Kouko, said part of the efforts made towards settling the matter was a corporate social responsibility project covering 31 schools.

“In an effort to amicably resolve this dispute, the company launched an extensive corporate social responsibility project in Funyula where the victims/complainants reside. The CSR project was agreed following wide consultations with the residents and local leadership of Funyula,” Mr Kouko said in court documents.

“The expensive and extensive CSR project included the building of water tanks, pit latrines and water harvesting equipment in primary schools,” he added.

The lawyer observed that the initiative was received well by the residents, adding that the company believed the project “would resolve the concerns of the victims in relation to the alleged contaminated products”.

The firm also requested for samples of the alleged contaminated products tested for its own independent testing and verification. Lawyers for the victims and Kebs did not object to the application.

December 9, 2014;