Food poisoning happens when a person becomes sick from eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Because these contaminants cannot be seen with the naked eye, it is often impossible to tell just by looking if food is tainted.
Food can become spoiled at any point. You’ve likely heard of food being recalled from grocery stores and restaurants. Most commonly, the food involved will be produce or raw meat. Salmonella and E. Coli are bacterias that often cause recalls after being detected in food.
Someone with food poisoning will often experience diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
These symptoms are usually mild enough that medical treatment is not required. Many people don’t even realize they have food poisoning but instead mistakenly attribute their symptoms to the flu or a similar illness.
Suing a Caterer for Food Poisoning
Hiring a caterer to prep food for your guests is not a sure way to prevent food poisoning at an event. If your guests get food poisoning, you may have a legal claim against your caterer.
Food Poisoning Claim
Getting harmed by food poisoning is considered a personal injury.
Specifically, you may have a defective product liability claim against your caterer. Products liability comes in four theories:
- Strict products liability
- Breach of express warranty
- Breach of implied warranty
These theories rely on the same premise: your caterer served defective food, and your guests were injured due to the defect. Since the caterer did not do their job correctly, they are responsible for the injuries.
In addition to the above claims, you may have a breach of contract claim against your caterer. Since your caterer did not deliver edible food, your caterer did not meet their contract requirements. Therefore, you do not need to pay your caterer.
What Causes Food Poisoning?
As mentioned earlier, there are several different ways that food poisoning can happen in a catering setting, but all of them can be classified as improper food handling:
- Improper Storage: Many foods can quickly become unsafe if stored or held at the wrong temperature. Raw meat must be kept cold enough (and cooked food must be kept hot enough) to stop contamination from bacteria or parasites. Therefore, food must be cooked or stored fast enough to stop bacterial growth at appropriate temperatures.
- Cross-Contamination: Food can also become contaminated by contact with surfaces, equipment, or other contaminated food.
- Improper Hygiene: Food can quickly become contaminated with a virus if a food handler is sick and still comes to work or if they are ill and don’t know it yet. Because food handlers don’t always immediately realize they are carrying a virus, careful and frequent hand-washing is a must.
How Do You Prove That the Caterer Gave You Food Poisoning?
Before you consider pursuing legal action against a caterer that you think gave you food poisoning, you must make sure that you will be able to prove that the food poisoning did come from food served to you by a caterer.
To demonstrate this, you will need to satisfy the elements of negligence. The basic elements of negligence when it comes to a food poisoning case are:
- The caterer had a duty to serve you safe food;
- The caterer breached that duty by serving you food that became unsafe because of actions or inaction taken by the caterer;
- The tainted food caused your illness; and
- You have measurable damages as a result of your illness.
Meeting all four of these elements is likely to be very difficult, and it can be almost impossible to present enough information to prove your case.
Nevertheless, proving that you suffered food poisoning from a caterer is much easier when multiple people become sick from eating the food. You will be more likely to verify that the caterer was the source of your sickness if several people become sick. The common denominator between them is that they all ate food from a particular caterer.
If you visit your physician after developing symptoms of food poisoning, they may want to use a stool specimen to identify exactly what kind of bacteria you were exposed to. That info is considered evidence that will make establishing your case easier.
If you successfully establish all of the elements above, the caterer will be considered liable for its negligence in preparing and serving your food. You will need to provide evidence of any medical costs incurred because of the food poisoning, such as physician bills and receipts for prescription or over-the-counter medications bought to treat your sickness.
Who Is Liable for the Food Poisoning from the Caterer?
If you choose to sue a caterer for food poisoning and are victorious in proving your case, the caterer will be responsible for the damages you suffer. The damages will likely include medical expenses and lost wages while you were sick.
It is often hard to precisely identify the particular employee(s) responsible for the improper food handling, but they could lose their job if the employee is identified.
As a preventative measure, the agencies regulating food handling and preparation impose very rigid penalties on caterers that are found to violate safe food handling policies. The fines given to offending caterers are ideal for deterring future violations that may put customers at risk.
How Much Time Do I Have to File a Suit?
If you would like to take legal action against your caterer, you should initiate the action as soon as possible. The longer you wait to file a claim against your caterer, the more challenging it will be for you to establish your case. Also, depending on your claim and the state where you would like to file suit, you may be required to bring a personal injury claim within a year or two of the occurrence.
How to Prove Your Claim
To win your case of food poisoning against your caterer, you must establish:
- The food you ate was contaminated.
- The food made you sick.
You may have to go to the hospital to get a stool sample test or open an investigation with the Disease Control and Prevention Center. The difficult part is to make sure the tests and investigation happen quickly after your guests start to feel sick. If too much time has passed, it will be hard to trace the source of the food poisoning.
Who Regulates Food Safety?
Food safety in the United States is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
The USDA is typically responsible for ensuring that meat from livestock and eggs is safe, so part of their job is to manage the handling, storage, and processing of raw meat and eggs at packaging plants.
The FDA helps ensure that food products are free of contaminants and are correctly labeled.
The CDC tracks known cases of food poisoning and works to make sure food that is known or suspected to be contaminated is removed.
Consulting a Lawyer
Due to the difficulty of finding the proper claims and theories to use, a personal injury lawyer can guide you through the process of taking legal action against a caterer. Also, a lawyer can help you negotiate a settlement such that you do not need to go to court and prove that the caterer caused the illness.