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Can I file a lawsuit for food poisoning?

Ladenburg Law   /   January 3, 2019

The short answer is “yes, you can sue for food poisoning.” But the long answer is a bit more complicated.

It’s a common scenario: you and your family decide to try the new restaurant across town. Everything tastes delicious, but by the time you get home, you realize something’s wrong. Very wrong. Sadly, this experience is not unique: every year, 48 million Americans are sickened by food poisoning. That’s about 1 in every 6 of us!

If this has happened to you, maybe you’ve wondered: could I sue for food poisoning? After all, the restaurant was responsible for your pain and suffering. Maybe you even had to visit the hospital or miss work. Shouldn’t someone have to pay?

What a food poisoning lawyer needs to prove

First, let’s take a look at this from the viewpoint of a personal injury lawyer. There are three things he or she would have to prove to win your food poisoning case:

  1. Someone acted negligently or maliciously. The lawyer would need to prove that the restaurant or its workers in some way failed to prepare safe food. Maybe a worker did not wash their hands after using the bathroom, or employees failed to keep food at safe temperatures.
  2. The negligence caused you harm. For this part, the lawyer is responsible to demonstrate that the negligence made the food unsafe, which ultimately left you sick. Sometimes, an investigator will perform lab results on food to identify foodborne pathogens.
  3. The harm you experienced was significant and/or life-altering. Did you end up in the hospital? Do you have ongoing medical concerns? How many days of work did you miss? These things may be easier to prove if there are medical and work records at the lawyer’s disposal.

Already, you might begin to see that if you have a case, you would want to work with a qualified attorney to help.

Food poisoning lawsuit challenges

In order to prove that the restaurant was negligent and that you were significantly harmed, your lawyer will need to gather evidence. Food poisoning cases are particularly challenging, for a few reasons.

Here are some of them:

  • Evidence is quickly lost. Food gets thrown out or digested, kitchens get cleaned up, workers go home and wash their hands.
  • Multiple parties may be liable. Even if you got sick after eating at a restaurant, how do you know it wasn’t one of their suppliers that was responsible? Was it poor food handling practices, or the negligence of one specific worker?
  • There could be other causes for your illness. Sometimes, food poisoning can mimic other illnesses, such as the stomach flu.
  • Your damages might be minimal. While food poisoning is painful and inconvenient, the damages are rarely significant enough to warrant a lawsuit.

Personal injury attorneys will want to consider if the time and cost involved in pursuing a lawsuit for your food poisoning makes sense. In most cases, your best bet may be seeking reimbursement from the restaurant manager.

When is food poisoning severe enough to warrant a lawsuit?

While most episodes of food poisoning are short-lived, sometimes they are not. In fact, the CDC reports that some people may end up with conditions like brain damage, kidney failure, or chronic arthritis from food poisoning!

Here are some times to consider reaching out to a personal injury attorney for assistance:

  • Vulnerable victim. Was the victim a child, elderly, pregnant, or immune compromised?
  • Extensive medical care. Did you have to stay in the hospital for a lengthy amount of time? Did you require ongoing medical care?
  • Permanent disability/lost wages. Are you unable to return to work quickly – or at all?
  • Substantial damages. Can you prove that your damages were substantial?
  • Known outbreak. Were other people sick from the same restaurant?
  • Death. Did your loved one pass away due to complications from food poisoning? (In these extreme situations, you may want to file a wrongful death lawsuit.)

In situations like these, you’ll want to work with a personal injury lawyer to seek justice.

What should I do if I got sick from a restaurant?

Let’s take a worst case scenario, where it appears early on the food poisoning is going to be severe.

Here are some steps you could take:

  1. Retain any leftovers. While you might be tempted to throw away those leftovers – don’t. Certain tests may be able to be performed to isolate foodborne pathogens.
  2. Keep your receipt. Make sure to keep the receipt in a safe place.
  3. Seek medical care. The sooner you can see a doctor, the better. A doctor may be able to confirm food poisoning and rule out other illnesses. Don’t hesitate to call 911 if your symptoms are severe or life-threatening.
  4. Report the incident. Make sure to alert the local health department. It’s possible there’s a violation that needs correcting. Your actions could prevent others from getting sick. (Here are the numbers to call for the State of Washington.)

At this point, you’ll want to reach out to a qualified personal injury attorney. The sooner you can involve them on your case, the better chance they have at gathering evidence.

Notable food poisoning lawsuit verdicts

In spite of their complexity, there have been some notable food poisoning lawsuits over the years. These verdicts not only resulted in hefty settlements for the plaintiffs, they forced the food suppliers to improve their processes. This makes the food safer for everyone.

  • Jack-in-the-Box: Brianne Kinner was 9 years old in 1993 when she was sickened from eating an undercooked hamburger from the chain. She fell into a coma, required months of kidney dialysis, and bled from every orifice of her body. Doctors thought she wouldn’t make it. Though she pulled through, she suffered permanent brain and kidney damage. She won a $15.6 million settlement. Kinner wasn’t the only victim; 178 victims were permanently injured and 4 children died.
  • Chipotle: The burrito chain settled with over 100 customers in 2016 after food poisoning was linked to unsafe food handling.
  • Odwalla: After a young child died drinking tainted apple juice in 1996, Odwalla was fined $1.5 million. Over 70 others were sickened.

In all the above cases, notice that multiple people fell sick. When there is a known outbreak or cause, it lowers the burden of proof for individual plaintiffs. In other words, a lot of the evidence has already been gathered. The restaurant or food supplier has already been found negligent.

I still think I have a case – what should I do?

We recognize that every story is unique, which is why we want to hear yours. If you or a loved one endured serious illness from food poisoning, pick up the phone and call us at 253.272.5226. There’s no charge for an initial consultation, and we work on a contingency basis. You risk nothing by reaching out to our skilled personal injury lawyers at Ladenburg Law.

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