Foodborne illness, otherwise referred to as foodborne disease, is any type of illness that results from the consumption of contaminated, expired, or otherwise defective food. Foodborne illnesses may also arise from exposure to food that is mishandled. Typically, foodborne illness most commonly results from the improper preparation, handling, or storage of food, including any cutlery that is used to consume the food.
It is important to note that each and every state has very strict laws when it comes to the hygiene practices that must be adhered to when preparing and serving food to the general public. As such, it is important to consult your local jurisdiction’s laws concerning food safety, handling, and preparation, as each state’s laws will differ from one another.
What Causes Food Borne Illness?
As mentioned above, the most common cause of foodborne illness is the introduction of food contaminants, such as chemicals or toxins, into food. Food contaminants are most commonly introduced in the preparation phase of the food product. However, foodborne illnesses may also be caused by naturally occurring substances, such as naturally occurring poisons found in the food product itself.
For instance, most people know that a misstep in the preparation of blowfish, or other food product that contains natural poisons, could result in a consumer being poisoned.
Bacteria is another one of the main contaminants that can result in a foodborne illness. Bacteria are contaminants that are transferred to a food product due to improper handling or preparation of that food product. In general, the bacteria transferred is a result of the food preparer lacking proper hygiene. Examples of the most common types of food bacteria include viruses and bacteria, such as E. Coli or Salmonella.
In addition to the above, there are other naturally occurring substances that may result in a foodborne illness, including mercury. For instance, there are high levels of mercury that naturally occur in seafood products. Even though mercury naturally occurs, the amounts of mercury in seafood products may rise to an unsafe level due to recent industrialization. In fact, mercury poisoning as a result of consuming too much methylmercury or organic mercury has been on the rise in the United States.
Further, children and pregnant people are more vulnerable to mercury poisoning.
Typically, when a foodborne illness breaks out due to food contamination, the authorities are contacted in order to prevent a mass outbreak. From there, all parties involved in the food product are put on notice to take action to prevent further outbreaks, such as recalling defective food products.
Who Can Be Held Liable in a Foodborne Illness Lawsuit?
A foodborne illness lawsuit falls under the negligence theory of product liability. Product liability is the set of legal statutes that hold a manufacturer, wholesaler, or seller of a product accountable for defective products that are in the stream of commerce.
Under product liability laws, any single party that is responsible for any part of the manufacture or sale of a defective product may be held liable for any injuries that result from that defective product’s use or consumption by a consumer.
For example, when it comes to manufacturing a food product that contains multiple ingredients, numerous different parties may be involved in the manufacture, distribution, and sale of the food product. One manufacturer may create one specific ingredient, while another may create another combination of ingredients that go into the final product.
After all of the individually manufactured ingredients are brought together and assembled, another company may then be responsible for the final consumable product. After the final product is complete, one party will then be in charge of distributing the product to wholesalers, who will then in turn, will sell the final product to stores, who will then sell the product to a consumer.
If a completed food product is defective upon consumption by a consumer, then any of the following parties involved may be held liable for any resulting injuries:
- The manufacturer that prepared or combined all of the ingredients for the product;
- The wholesaler that received the completed product and then sold the product to the distributor;
- The storefront that sold the defective product to the consumer, including restaurant employees in certain cases where the individual employee is responsible for introducing the contaminant;
- The manufacturer of the specific ingredient of the completed product that was found to be defective or resulted in a consumer receiving a foodborne illness.
Once again, product liability law is its own distinct category of law, which means that product liability law is different from typical personal injury civil lawsuits. This is because product liability laws are designed to protect and compensate consumers for their injuries while also serving as a deterrent to manufacturers or responsible individuals by punishing them for defective goods that end up in the stream of commerce.
Further, in many foodborne illness lawsuit cases, a large group of people may be harmed by the same product, which may also lead to class action lawsuits being filed.
What Are Some Legal Issues Associated With Food Borne Illness Lawsuits?
As can be seen from the above list of possible defendants, part of the difficulty in successfully filing a civil food poisoning claim is identifying the exact party who is liable for your injuries.
As such, the party that suffered harm from the food poisoning may need to consider where they bought the food, where the food was consumed, as well as their individual background of food allergies. Plaintiffs may also wish to initiate a civil lawsuit against a fictitious defendant and then later modify their petition once they discover the party responsible for their injuries.
Among other issues, a plaintiff would need to prove that the party that harmed them, i.e., a restaurant chain, breached their duty of care somehow and that the breach of their duty is what ultimately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. For instance, a chef may have undercooked the meat that was consumed by the plaintiff, resulting in them getting food poisoning. Alternatively, the meat may have been improperly stored or contaminated by other food products by that restaurant.
Thus, proving a civil foodborne illness claim based on food poisoning is often complicated as it can involve several different parties mentioned above. With regard to restaurant food poisoning, the liability for the food poisoning may also be traced to numerous parties. These parties include the restaurant owner/manager, cooks, chefs, waiters, or other personnel that came into contact with the poisoned food product.
What Are the Legal Remedies for Foodborne Illness Injuries?
If a plaintiff (i.e., the party that was allegedly harmed by the foodborne illness) is able to prove their case against the party responsible for their illness, then they will be able to recover a damages award in court. Under the personal injury law, a plaintiff can recover two types of damages: general damages and special damages.
General damages are damages that are awarded for the injury itself and may include:
- Damages related to pain and suffering;
- Damages related to mental anguish;
- Damages related to the trauma of the illness.
The bulk of the recoverable damages related to foodborne illness injuries are known as special damages. Special damages are damages that compensate an injured plaintiff for a specific consequence of an injury, which includes:
- Lost wages;
- Hospital expenses;
- Any other quantifiable damages, such as loss of earning capacity, pharmacy bills, or in severe cases, damages related to a wrongful death claim.
Do I Need a Lawyer to Help With a Food Borne Illness Lawsuit?
As can be seen, recovering from a foodborne illness may be a complicated matter. As such, if you have suffered injuries due to a foodborne illness, you should immediately consult with an experienced foodborne illness attorney that practices personal injury law.
A foodborne illness attorney will be knowledgeable on the specific laws regarding foodborne illnesses in your state, as well as any class action lawsuits that may be ongoing.
An experienced personal injury lawyer will also be able to assist you in gathering the necessary information to hold the correct party liable for your injuries. Additionally, an attorney will be able to initiate a civil lawsuit on your behalf and represent you in court, as necessary.