Food Poisoning and Personal Injury Law: Can You Sue for Food Poisoning?
March 29, 2016
In 2015, 43 Chipotle restaurants shut down after hundreds of diners became ill in separate E. coli and norovirus outbreaks linked to the Mexican food chain. The incidents led to a number of lawsuits, including a $75,000 claim by a Washington state woman who alleged she became violently ill after eating a burro bowl at one of Chipotle’s restaurants. The case is still ongoing and other lawsuits may be filed because of the outbreaks.
The first outbreak affected about 55 people in 11 states, leaving 21 people hospitalized. During the second outbreak, five people from three states became ill and one person was hospitalized. No deaths were reported from the food poisoning cases. In addition, 141 Boston College students reportedly had norovirus in 2015, allegedly linked to food eaten at a local Chipotle restaurant.
Chipotle is certainly not alone in being the target of legal action over food poisoning. About 48 million Americans — or one in six — become sick due to food-borne illnesses each year. Of these, 3,000 will die and 128,000 will require hospital care. Each year, Americans file lawsuits after falling ill after eating restaurant meals.
Suing for Food Poisoning — and Winning
In theory, you can sue for food poisoning in all states. You may be able to sue a variety of liable parties, including the restaurant where you consumed the food, the suppliers providing the food, growers, and the owners of the restaurant chain. In the past, there have been many larger cases where a food poisoning lawsuit resulted in wins for the victims, including:
- In 1993, Jack in the Box experienced an E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, resulting in the deaths of four children and more than 600 instances of illnesses. Hundreds of customers sued and some won their cases — including a nine-year-old girl who was awarded a $15.6 million settlement after suffering kidney failure due to foodborne illnesses she contracted after eating a meal at a Jack in the Box.
- In 2005, a man contracted Hepatitis A after eating at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant. After needing a liver transplant due to the disease, he filed a lawsuit and eventually received a $6.25 million settlement.
- In 1998, Odwalla Inc. was accused of causing severe illnesses because of its contaminated apple juice. Eventually, the company agreed to pay $12 to $15 million to five families affected by the E. coli outbreak.
Understanding Food Poisoning
When you dine out, you want to experience a great evening, or you want to enjoy the convenience of prepared food. The last thing you and your family expect is to become ill because of something you ate. Of course, you expect restaurants to handle food responsibly. Unfortunately, there are many outbreaks and individual instances of food poisoning linked to diners, fast food restaurants, food vendors, and other food-related businesses each year.
Foodborne illness contracted in restaurants can include botulism, norovirus, Listeria, E. Coli, hepatitis, and shigella. Food poisoning occurs when bacteria or viruses enter the food and are passed onto diners. This can happen for a number of reasons:
- Food may be shipped from suppliers already contaminated
- Improper washing, storage, food handling, or food preparation methods may be used
- Employees may not wash hands regularly or follow other food safety guidelines
- Ill employees may pass on highly contagious diseases (such as hepatitis) by preparing or serving food
- Food and hygiene guidelines might not be followed when cleaning food preparation surfaces
- Employees might not be trained correctly
- Food may not be heated to an adequate temperature
- Food areas may be infested with rats or other pests
Many of these are preventable. In a legal claim, courts may decide these instances are forms of negligence on the part of restaurant owners. If you suffered an illness after dining out, contact a personal injury law firm in your area to determine whether you have a claim.
Hire a Skilled Attorney in Food Poisoning Cases
A restaurant with casual attitudes about food safety, employee training, or hygiene may appear to be undoubtedly negligent. However, lawsuits resulting from foodborne illnesses are hard to prove for a number of reasons:
- Tracing foodborne illness to a specific cause is difficult. Symptoms might not appear for hours or days, and, in the meantime, you may have eaten other foods. Tracing a foodborne illness back to a specific food is a challenge, unless there is an outbreak affecting multiple people. Proving an illness was caused by food and not by a stomach flu or other cause can be difficult.
- Evidence starts to break down almost immediately. Restaurants may clean off surfaces and throw away or serve contaminated food, meaning it may not be available for analysis. Your body will naturally work to get rid of illness, meaning evidence of the illness may disappear.
- Evidence can be contaminated. It can difficult to prove negligence because you consumed the food, meaning it is gone. Even if you can prove that food at a restaurant was contaminated or the food you brought home in a take-away container was dangerous, it can be a challenge to prove the food you ate was also contaminated. If you have a take-away container, the restaurant may allege the food became contaminated after it left the restaurant. You can have the establishment searched and maybe evidence of contaminated food is found, but they may allege the harmful food was never served.
- You may have a hard time proving you ate at a restaurant. Perhaps you dined alone, did not make reservations, paid with cash, or did not keep the receipt. Even if a number of people became ill at the same restaurant and a health agency is involved, you must prove you ate at the establishment during a specific period.
- There are many liable parties involved. There may be wholesalers and suppliers supplying food to a restaurant, teams of food preparers, business owners, and a food chain involved. In a lawsuit, it is not uncommon for parties to shift the blame, making it hard to determine exactly why you are ill and who may be responsible.
- The damages may be relatively minor. You may be seriously ill for a few days, but if you only miss a few days of work and recover fully, your total damages in medical costs and lost wages may only add up to a small amount, making it harder to pursue a legal claim. In a food poisoning lawsuit, you can seek compensation for out-of-pocket expenses, lost income, medical bills, distress, and pain and suffering. Most successful cases, however, involve significant damages.
- The defendants may be powerful. In cases involving chain restaurants especially, the defendants involved may have entire teams of attorneys and vast financial resources. They may investigate each case thoroughly and fight legal claims aggressively.
- It can be difficult to prove there was something wrong with the food you ate. It is possible to become ill due to food sensitiveness, allergies, or for other reasons having nothing to do with food. In order to prove a claim, you must show the food was contaminated or incorrectly prepared in some way. In other words, you must prove the food did more than disagree with you in some way. You must isolate a specific pathogen in the food, usually via pulsed-field gel electrophoreses (PFGE) testing.
An experienced personal injury attorney understands the challenges of food poisoning lawsuits and can meet them head on. They understand the careful preparation needed for these cases and have access to the medical experts, consultants, and scientific testimony needed.
Food Poisoning Class Action Lawsuits
In cases where an outbreak of foodborne illness causes dozens or even hundreds of illnesses, a class action lawsuit may be filed. If so, you can join this action. The cost to you will be limited, and there is usually significant evidence compiled against a food vendor, company, or chain in these cases, meaning the burden of proof for you specifically is smaller. As long as you can prove you became ill and ate at the restaurant during a specific time window, you may be able to join the class action claim.
You can also launch a class action claim. If you contact a personal injury attorney in Pennsylvania after becoming ill and your attorney discovers others who were similarly ill after eating a specific food, your claim may become a class action as others join. This can bolster the strength of your claim as well, showing a clearer link between your injuries and the food you consumed.
What to Do if You Become Sick After Eating at a Restaurant
Tens of millions of Americans become ill from food each year. If you are one of them, you should take the following actions:
- Take dining out seriously. Reduce your chances of contracting a foodborne illness. Dine out at establishments you trust and read reviews before you make reservations. In Pennsylvania, you can check health inspections for your favorite diners and food establishments online. At a restaurant, do not be afraid to send back food that looks undercooked. Keep receipts and information about the establishments you visit.
- Know the symptoms of food poisoning. Foodborne illness symptoms usually happen within 2 to 6 hours or more after eating contaminated food. Mild food poisoning can last 48 hours, but may last longer in serious cases. Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fever, and weakness.
- See a doctor right away. If you suspect foodborne illness, seek medical help. Many people think food poisoning is embarrassing or inconvenient, but it can be fatal. Each year, thousands of people die due to food contamination, so it is important to seek immediate medical treatment.
- Start gathering evidence immediately. As soon as you realize you are ill due to something you ate, write down the date, time, and your symptoms. Keep your leftovers as evidence. Ask for copies of doctor’s reports, receipts, and anything else related to your situation.
- Make a call to a personal injury attorney. The timeline in food poisoning cases is important, so call an attorney with experience in foodborne illness lawsuits right away. At KBG Injury Law, we offer a free consultation, so you can enjoy prompt legal advice without obligation and without legal fees upfront. We advise you so that you can take timely action.
How to Prove Food Poisoning
Let’s take a deeper dive into providing the evidence in a food poisoning case. Say you go out to dinner with your family to a new-to-you restaurant. A few hours later, that meal does not seem like such a good idea. You have a fever, chills and the worst stomach cramps you have ever experienced, followed by rounds of vomiting.
It has to be the food, right? You have no doubt as to what made you sick. How do you prove the restaurant was responsible for causing your illness?
This can be a difficult thing to do, but it is not impossible. Use these tips for how to prove you received food poisoning from a restaurant.
Show the Evidence
The best way to prove your case involves presenting proof that food was contaminated. That may seem difficult if you are no longer at the restaurant. Luckily, many people bring home leftovers after their meal. If you have a doggy bag in the fridge, then you can send the food to a lab for analysis. If it turns up something harmful, such as E. coli or salmonella, you have your first piece of evidence.
Rule Out Other Illnesses
As we mentioned, you should head to the doctor at the first sign of food poisoning because it can be fatal. A secondary reason for this step is to rule out any other illnesses. The doctor can tell you if your vomiting and diarrhea are caused by the stomach flu or some other illness. If they are not, you have a professional record demonstrating that:
- You were violently ill
- The date of the illness
- The fact that the illness was not flu-related
Proving food poisoning depends on acting as soon as you feel ill. You need to get medical attention within just a few hours to be able to tie your symptoms to the food you have eaten. So no matter how terrible you feel, make it a priority to visit a doctor.
Talk to Others Who Dined at the Restaurant
Chances are if one person received food poisoning, others did as well. Isolated cases of foodborne illnesses are rare. Did you bump into someone you knew at the restaurant? Inquire about their health. You can also write a note on social media asking if anyone else dined at the restaurant on the date you were there. Perhaps multiple people in your own party have even come down with food poisoning symptoms.
Compare notes and see what you all ate. Most cases of food poisoning can be traced to a handful of ingredients commonly linked to food poisoning, such as:
- Leafy greens
- Soft cheese
Check for Food Recalls
Food recalls occur with great frequency. Did you eat something at the restaurant that contained a food that has been recalled? While you will need to do some digging to connect the product definitively to your meal, it is certainly possible the chef used this contaminated food if you are feeling sick. For instance, say you ate a caesar salad. You may look online and find Romaine lettuce was just widely recalled.
At this point, you should turn all your evidence over to your lawyer. You have given them a good start.
Contact a Foodborne Illness Attorney Now
Foodborne illness is a miserable experience. In the worst scenario, it can lead to fatalities or permanent injury. Botulism, for example, can lead to extensive and permanent paralysis. Some patients remain on ventilators and require around-the-clock care for the rest of their lives. E. coli can lead to severe dehydration and fatalities. Children are most likely to suffer life-threatening injuries from E. coli and other foodborne illness.
If you or a family member suffered a serious illness after eating food at a food truck, food court, or any dining establishment, do not hesitate to contact KBG Injury Law. We offer free, confidential, and no obligation case evaluations. We know your health and time are precious, and we will do all we can to offer you the legal advice and representation you need.