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Legal FAQ: Can You Sue for Food Poisoning?

 

Most of the time, going out to eat or buying food from the grocery store is perfectly safe. Unfortunately, there are occasions when you may get sick after eating food prepared by others. You may go to a restaurant for dinner and find yourself sick in the middle of the night, or a rotisserie chicken you bought from your local grocery store may give you salmonella poisoning.

When another person prepares your food, there’s a chance of getting food poisoning. Even if they follow internal safety protocols, people make mistakes. The restaurant’s suppliers may have given them contaminated fruits or vegetables, or they might have received partially spoiled meat or seafood from their supply warehouse.

When this happens, people get sick. You have rights if you contract a foodborne illness after eating from a restaurant, pub, or grocery store. Here, we’ll explain whether you can sue for food poisoning. We’ll also explain what your personal injury lawyer must prove to get you compensation for your illness.

What is food poisoning?

People get food poisoning, or foodborne illness, by eating food containing bacteria or viruses.

There are many ways food contamination can happen. Food can become contaminated at a farm or during packaging. It can spoil en route to the grocery store or restaurant. Food can also become dangerous due to 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 suffer the following symptoms:
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramps
  • Fever

These symptoms resemble the stomach flu, making food poisoning challenging to detect.

Most instances of food poisoning are relatively minor, and people recover after a few days or a week. More severe cases can require hospitalization and lead to serious injuries and, rarely, death.

Vulnerable people like pregnant women, young children, older adults, and those who are already ill are more at risk of needing medical treatment.

What are some common sources of food poisoning?

Bacteria and viruses in food are the leading causes of food poisoning. Bacteria and viruses can contaminate almost any kind of food. However, there are some foods associated with food poisoning more than others.

Some of the common sources of food poisoning include:

  • Meats
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Shellfish
  • Dairy products
  • Fruits and vegetables

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.

What injuries does food poisoning cause?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the federal agency fighting disease nationwide. According to the CDC, an estimated 48 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year. This means one in six Americans will develop foodborne illness at some point.

Some people suffer more severe injuries from food poisoning and require medical attention. Food poisoning hospitalizes 128,000 people each year and annually kills an estimated 3,000 people. Infants, children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with weak immune systems are most susceptible to developing complications or experiencing severe symptoms.

Serious cases can require medical care, including the following:

  • Hospitalization
  • Extended recovery
  • Medication

This can impose financial hardship.

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.

Some of the more common types of food poisoning include:

  • E. coli
  • Listeria
  • Salmonella
  • Campylobacter
  • Hepatitis A
  • Botulism
  • Norovirus

Whether or not you have a valid personal injury claim will depend on the facts surrounding your situation.

What kind of lawsuit will I file?

If you want to sue for food poisoning, your attorney will file a product liability lawsuit. People file this kind of personal injury claim when they get sick from contaminated food products.

When you file your food poisoning claim, the goal is to recover compensation from the responsible party. Your food poisoning lawyer will demand the following types of damages:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages/lost future income
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Punitive damages

Keep in mind that judges rarely award punitive damages in these cases. Unless you have a severe case of food poisoning and can prove the defendant was reckless, don’t expect to receive punitive damages.

What does my attorney need to prove?

Your attorney must demonstrate that your sickness was due to the defendant’s handling or preparation of your food. You’ll also have to show that the food was either contaminated or that the defendant did something to make the food unsafe.

The court will apply a strict liability standard in most food poisoning cases. This means you only have to prove that something contaminated your food. You don’t have to prove what contaminated the food. You must show that your illness was directly due to the defendant’s product.

Food poisoning lawsuits are more likely to be successful when you can track the contamination of the food supply. For example, a government agency may have confirmed an outbreak of foodborne illness. Sometimes, widespread outbreaks of food poisoning result in class-action lawsuits.

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

It’s challenging to succeed in a food poisoning claim. Not only do you have to prove fault and damages, but you must also supply evidence showing that you were sick.

Some of the practical difficulties in filing a food poisoning lawsuit include:

  • People often become ill with symptoms of food poisoning days after eating contaminated food, which makes it hard to determine which food is responsible for their illness.
  • The plaintiff must prove the responsible party is liable under 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.
  • Many food poisoning cases aren't severe enough to make the time and cost of a lawsuit worthwhile.

Some food poisoning cases can address all of these concerns. It’s one thing to sue a restaurant for food poisoning after the news announces an E. coli outbreak. It’s another thing to prove that a grocery store sold you partially spoiled fish.

It's easier to prove your case when multiple people suffer from food poisoning. More severe injuries requiring hospitalization may make a personal injury lawsuit financially worthwhile. If your loved one dies from food poisoning, you can file a wrongful death lawsuit.

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 hard to win without a lawyer's help. Americans take food safety seriously. Various legal standards apply, and it is wise to get legal assistance.

After a severe 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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