“Contaminated food” is a phrase that refers to just about anything in food that is not supposed to be there. It generally covers a wide variety of things, from items that you can see to those that are unseen.
Why is this important? Because contaminated food has the potential to make people sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 48 million people get sick from food every year–and about 128,000 of those people get so sick that they have to be hospitalized.
What is the Difference Between Food Contamination and Food Poisoning?
Food contamination and food poisoning are related, but slightly different. Basically, food contamination refers to the foreign object in the food (such as hair or bacteria). Food poisoning, or “foodborne illness,” refers to the illness that occurs either because of contaminated food or because the food has been improperly handled in some way.
For example, a piece of chicken was improperly cooked or a pot of soup held at an improper temperature could allow for the growth of bacteria that result in foodborne illness.
What Types of Contamination Can Be Found in Food?
Contaminants can come in a variety of ways. The most common food contaminants include:
- Physical Objects: Sometimes you may find an actual object in the food that should not be there. Examples include hair, rocks, bugs, metal pieces, and other physical items.
- Chemicals or Toxins: These contaminants can include chemicals or pesticides from the production or farming process. However, in some cases the packaging of the food can also break down over time and release toxins into the food.
- Biological Contaminants: You are likely more familiar with the idea of biological contaminants than you realize. At times, food producers or supermarkets may issue warnings or recalls in the news for food items due to contamination by bacteria, viruses, or some other pathogen. Most often these recalls involve contamination by salmonella, E.coli, or listeria bacteria. (We will talk more about food recalls below.)
What are Food Illness Lawsuits?
Most cases that involve foodborne illness are because of biological components–bacteria or viruses that are in the food and cause illness. Most cases of food poisoning or foodborne illness arise from microbes like norovirus or E.coli, listeria, and salmonella bacteria.
These foodborne illnesses can be spread by not cooking food properly, not keeping food at proper temperatures, or cross-contamination with other foods (for example, cutting salad greens on a cutting board that was previously used for raw chicken–without cleaning the board between foods).
Symptoms of foodborne illnesses can include nausea, abdominal pain, cramps, fever, headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea, and may start between two and six hours after eating contaminated food. In some cases, symptoms can be severe and require medical attention.
In certain situations, foodborne illnesses can lead to long-term health issues and even (in very severe cases) death. Children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems are most susceptible to developing complications from foodborne illnesses.
If you have received contaminated food, or if you have been sick due to foodborne illness, you may be wondering if you have a case for a lawsuit. The truth is, a lawsuit based upon foodborne illness can be a little tricky. There are certain things that you will need to prove in order for your case to be successful.
The things you will need to prove also depend on the laws of your state and on the way you approach your case, whether you bring claims in the areas of strict liability, negligence, or breach of warranty.
Who Can Sue for Contaminated Food?
In the majority of cases, the person who was made sick by contaminated food is the person who can sue for the injury. However, there are a few instances where others may be able to sue for the injury:
- Parents of Children: If a child is sick from contaminated food, their parents can sue on their behalf. Even if the parents are not currently together either parent can file a lawsuit on behalf of their child.
- Guardians of Incapacitated Persons: Sometimes, in extreme cases, foodborne illnesses may leave a person incapacitated or mentally impaired, and unable to file suit for themselves. In these cases, guardians or family members may sue on their behalf.
- Class Action Lawsuits: In cases where the contaminated food makes a large number of people sick, then a personal injury attorney or advocacy group can initiate the lawsuit on behalf of the group of plaintiffs.
- Wrongful Death Cases: In extreme cases, people may die from foodborne illnesses. If this occurs, then a family member can initiate a lawsuit for a wrongful death case. In the case of a wrongful death claim, the family member initiating the lawsuit would need to be an immediate family member, such as a parent, spouse, or child of the deceased.
An experienced personal injury lawyer can help you determine who may initiate the lawsuit under the circumstances of your specific case.
How Do I Prove My Food Illness Came from the Defendant?
Generally, in order to prove your claim, you will need to show that the food was contaminated, and that the contamination of the food caused your illness. Depending on what state you’re in and what avenue you used to file your case, you may need to prove a few more things, as well.
- In strict liability cases, you will need to prove that the contaminated food was unreasonably dangerous, and that the dangerous contamination caused your illness. In this scenario, it does not matter whether the defendant was careful and took precautions to prevent the contamination.
- In breach of warranty cases, you will need to show that there is a warranty that the food product would conform to a particular minimum quality standard, and that the food in question did not meet that standard.
- In negligence cases (which is where most food illness cases fall), you will need to show that the defendant did not follow an appropriate standard of care, which caused the food poisoning that caused your illness and caused you actual damages.
With regards to evidence for your case, keep track of how much time passed between your last meal and the beginning of your symptoms. If you seek medical attention for your illness, keep the records of your treatment and any tests that your doctor runs, as well as copies of any bills you receive.
Whether you bought the contaminated food at the grocery store or you brought home a doggy bag from the restaurant, save those leftovers. While it may not be conclusive, you might be able to have the leftovers analyzed for the bacteria or viruses that caused your illness.
The defendant may be able to argue that you improperly stored your leftovers or manipulated them in some way to benefit your case, but at least you will have something other than just your word to show that the food was contaminated.
What Legal Remedies are Available in a Contaminated Food Lawsuit?
When foodborne illness causes injuries, you may be able to recover legal damages for a number of things. Damages in cases of food poisoning may include things like:
- Medical bills;
- Lost income;
- Pain and suffering;
- Out-of-pocket expenses; and
- Emotional distress.
What is a Food Recall?
You have likely heard about food recalls on the news. Food recalls are voluntary responses by suppliers or manufacturers to remove contaminated or potentially contaminated food products from the shelves in order to protect the public and prevent further problems from occurring.
This often happens if a food supplier realizes that the products have been mislabeled. For example, if the product is sent to stores in the wrong packaging, if the labels make misleading claims or do not properly declare potential allergens, the manufacturer may issue a recall.
In addition to labeling issues, food recalls can happen if it is discovered that any biological, physical, or chemical contaminants could be present in the food. For example, if a manufacturer discovers that there could be metal shavings from the factory’s machinery in the product, this could cause a physical contaminant that would necessitate a recall.
Other recalls have occurred because of hazards for bacterial contaminants–for example, romaine lettuce grown in particular areas in California faced a recall in 2019 due to potential contamination with E.coli bacteria.
The FDA often issues guidelines and instructions on what to do with recalled food, if you find that you have purchased it recently. If the problem involves a dangerous bacteria, you may be directed to throw it out or take the item (with the receipt) back to the store for a refund. You can also refer to the FDA’s website for a list of recalled food items and safety alerts.
Do I Need a Lawyer If I Became Sick from Contaminated Food?
If you believe that you got sick from eating contaminated food, you may want to consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer to see what can be done to support your claim. It can be difficult to establish your claims in court if you did not seek medical attention for your illness, so proving a case of food poisoning can be an uphill battle.
However, your lawyer can talk through the circumstances of your case with you, and help you decide on the best way to move forward. If you decide to move forward with a lawsuit, your lawyer can also represent you in court and help you present the strongest possible case so that you get the best possible outcome.