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Legal FAQs: Can You Sue for Food Poisoning?

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can people who suffer from food poisoning sue?

Yes, it is possible to sue food suppliers, restaurants, or others within the stream of commerce after suffering from food poisoning such as e. coli, listeria, salmonella, or norovirus. Whether or not you have a valid personal injury claim will depend on the facts surrounding your situation.

A product liability lawsuit is a specific kind of personal injury claim that often applies when contaminated food products are sold and cause people to get sick. A lawsuit may allow you to recover compensation for medical costs, hospital bills, lost income, and other damages.

Food poisoning lawsuits are more likely to be successful when there is a well-documented contamination of the food supply, such as a government agency that has confirmed an outbreak of foodborne illness. Sometimes, widespread outbreaks of food poisoning result in class-action lawsuits.

Q: What are some practical concerns with filing a food poisoning lawsuit?

There are some practical difficulties in filing a food poisoning lawsuit:

  1. First, people often become ill with symptoms of food poisoning days after eating contaminated food, which makes it hard to figure out what food was actually responsible.
  2. Second, the person filing the lawsuit has to prove that the responsible party is legally liable based on state product liability laws. This can be hard to do, even when all you have to prove is that the food product you ate was contaminated and the contamination caused your illness.
  3. Finally, many food poisoning cases aren't serious enough to make the time and cost of a lawsuit worthwhile.

Some food poisoning cases may be able to address all of these concerns. Clear-cut cases of restaurant dishes or packaged food products causing food poisoning do happen.

When multiple people suffer from food poisoning, it can be easier to prove that the food was contaminated. More severe injuries requiring hospitalization may make a personal injury lawsuit financially worthwhile. Cases where people die from food poisoning may warrant a wrongful death lawsuit seeking to recover compensation for surviving family members.

Q: What is food poisoning?

People get food poisoning (also commonly called “foodborne illness") by eating food containing bacteria or viruses.

There are many, many different ways food contamination can happen. Food can become contaminated at a farm, during packaging, while en route to the grocery store, at a restaurant, or at a consumer's home. Food can also become contaminated as a result of improper food handling, storage, or cooking.

The exact cause of food poisoning can be hard to determine — often symptoms appear days after eating the contaminated food.

People who become sick after consuming contaminated food often suffer from symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramps, and fever. These symptoms can resemble the stomach flu and other illnesses, making food poisoning difficult to detect.

Most instances of food poisoning are relatively minor and people recover after a week or more. More serious cases can require hospitalization and lead to serious injuries and, rarely, death. Vulnerable people like pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and those who are already ill are more at risk of needing medical treatment.

Q: What are some common sources of food poisoning?

Bacteria and viruses in food are the main causes of food poisoning. Some specific bacteria and viruses are often associated with food poisoning and feature in periodic outbreaks. These include e. colisalmonellanorovirus, and listeria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also publishes a list of frequent foodborne disease-causing organisms for the public.

Bacteria and viruses can contaminate almost any kind of food. However, there are some foods associated with food poisoning more than others. Meats, poultry, eggs, shellfish, dairy products, and leafy green vegetables are often pointed to as at-risk foods.

Recent outbreaks of e. coli infected spinach, salmonella-containing meats and eggs, and listeria-containing milk and cheese products have made headlines. Prevention tends to be the best cure. Properly refrigerating, cooking, and storing food can significantly reduce the risk of food poisoning.

Q: What injuries are associated with food poisoning?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the federal agency responsible for fighting disease nationwide. According to the CDC, an estimated 48 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year. This amounts to around one in six Americans. In the vast majority of incidents, people develop nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramps, and fever. For the most part, food poisoning will pass on its own after a week or more without the need for medical treatment.

Some people suffer more severe injuries from food poisoning. Food poisoning hospitalizes 128,000 people each year and annually kills an estimated 3,000 people. Infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems are most susceptible to developing complications or experiencing severe symptoms. Serious cases can require hospitalization, a longer recovery period, and medication. This can impose financial hardship on people.

Q: Do I need a lawyer to sue for food poisoning?

The short answer is that you technically do not need a lawyer to file a product liability claim. However, it can be very difficult to have success without a lawyer's help. The issue of food safety is taken seriously in the U.S. and there are various legal standards that apply.

For example, many states have laws that create "implied warranties" on food items and when a food product is contaminated it could be considered a breach of implied warranty. After a serious case of food poisoning, a personal injury attorney can explain how state law applies to your situation and provide legal advice on what to do. Many personal injury law firms offer free consultations.

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