Food Poisoning, Personal Injury Law, and Your Right to Compensation

Personal injury lawsuits for food poisoning

What to do when you get seriously sick due to a foodborne illness

When food gets contaminated, food suppliers, manufacturers, processors, distributors, and others that are part of the food chain may be held liable.

Food poisoning is a common illness caused by eating contaminated food. The federal government estimates that there are roughly 48 million cases of food poisoning every year.

Though you might think of food poisoning as merely a horrible inconvenience, it can be much worse than that. Food poisoning can lead to hospitalization, long-term health issues, and even death.

If you’ve suffered from food poisoning, you may be able to file a product liability lawsuit against the restaurant that served the contaminated food and, in certain situations, the food processor, distributor, or grower.

Symptoms and causes of food poisoning

Food poisoning symptoms can vary depending on the source of the contamination. However, most types of food poisoning cause one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever

When to see a doctor for food poisoning

The Mayo Clinic recommends seeing a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Frequent episodes of vomiting
  • Bloody vomit or stools
  • Diarrhea for more than 3 days
  • Extreme pain or severe abdominal cramping
  • An oral temperature higher than 100.4F
  • Dehydration
  • Neurological symptoms such as blurry vision, muscle weakness and tingling in the arms

Food poisoning occurs when a bacteria, virus, or parasite contaminates your food at any point in production, which might include the growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping, or preparing food.

Though many harmful organisms cause food poisoning, 5 germs cause illnesses in the United States more than all the others:

5 Worst Food Poisoning Germs
Germ Symptoms Common sources
Norovirus Diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting (symptoms start 12-24 hours after eating) Leafy greens, fresh fruits, shellfish, and water
Salmonella Diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, vomiting (symptoms start 6-96 hours after eating) Raw or undercooked chicken, turkey, and meat; unpasteurized milk and juice; raw fruits and vegetables
Clostridium perfringens Double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech; difficulty swallowing, breathing, and dry mouth; muscle weakness and paralysis (symptoms start 18-36 hours after eating) Improperly canned or fermented foods (usually homemade)
Campylobacter Diarrhea (often bloody), stomach cramps or pain, fever (symptoms start 2-5 days after eating) Raw or undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk, and contaminated water
Staphylococcus aureus Nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps (symptoms start 30 minutes-6 hours after eating) Foods that aren’t cooked after handlings, such as sliced meats, pudding, pastries, and sandwiches
There are roughly 48 million cases of food poisoning every year. Tweet this

Long term health issues associated with food poisoning

Most people suffer mild symptoms from food poisoning that last several hours to several days. Although this period can be miserable, the symptoms eventually go away and the person recovers.

However, sometimes food poisoning can lead to long-term health issues and even death.

Facing factsAccording to the CDC, there are roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths every year due to food poisoning.

Common long-term health issues associated with food poisoning include:

  • Chronic arthritis
  • Brain and nerve damage
  • Hemolytic uremic syndrome resulting in kidney failure

Though all individuals are at risk, certain groups are more likely to experience long-term health issues or death as a result of food poisoning. These groups include:

  • Adults aged 65 years and older
  • Children younger than 5
  • People with weakened immune symptoms
  • Pregnant women
Children under the age of 5 are 3 times more likely to be hospitalized if they get a Salmonella infection. Kidney failure strikes 1 out of 7 children under 5 who are diagnosed with E.coli. Tweet this

Theories of product liability

Food is considered a product. Because of this, the appropriate lawsuit to bring after suffering from food poisoning is a product liability lawsuit.

Product liability lawsuits provide a remedy for individuals injured as a result of a defective product. A food item that is contaminated may be considered defective and food suppliers, manufacturers, processors, distributors, and others that are part of the food chain may be held liable.

Real life example: Chi-Chi’s Restaurant

Once upon a time, Chi-Chi’s was a popular Tex-Mex restaurant chain. Created by former Green Bay Packers star Max McGee, the restaurant launched in 1975 and franchises quickly popped up throughout the United States.

However, in 2003, 660 people became sick and 4 people died when they ate contaminated scallions served at a Chi-Chi’s near Pittsburgh. The chain had to pay more than $40 million to settle hundreds of lawsuits over the outbreak. The company sold all of its restaurants to Outback Steakhouse, Inc. in 2004.

Product liability lawsuits can be brought under the theory of negligence or strict liability. Let’s take a quick look at both theories.


In a product liability case based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove that:

  • The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of reasonable care (all businesses, including food suppliers, manufacturers, processors, distributors have a duty to exercise reasonable care not to harm customers),
  • The defendant breached the duty of reasonable care, and
  • The defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

Strict liability

In a product liability case based on strict liability, the plaintiff doesn’t need to prove that the defendant breached any sort of a duty. Rather, the plaintiff only needs to show that:

  • A product was sold in an “unreasonably dangerous” condition,
  • The unreasonably dangerous condition existed at the time the product left the defendant's control, and
  • The dangerous condition was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

Who can be held liable for food poisoning?

Anyone responsible for the contamination can be held liable in a food poisoning lawsuit. This might include:

  • Restaurants
  • Food suppliers
  • Manufacturers
  • Processors
  • Distributors

Though each state handles the issue a little differently, everyone in the food chain that contributed to your illness is typically joint and severally liable for the entire amount of your damages. This means that you can sue one of the responsible parties for the entire amount of damages, even if they were only partially at fault.

The party you sue can then turn around and sue the other responsible parties for their share of the damages.

What if you get food poisoning from donated food?

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act is a federal law that protects individuals who donate food products. Donors will avoid liability for contaminated food so long as the food product “appeared” uncontaminated at the time of the donation. The law also protects non-profit organizations that receive donated food items in most situations.

Common defenses against a food poisoning lawsuit

The 2 most common defenses in food poisoning cases are:

  • Lack of causation
  • Lack of damages

The hardest thing to prove in a food poisoning case is that the defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. This is because symptoms of food poisoning often don’t appear for hours or even days after consuming the contaminated food. As a result, it can be difficult to prove that the defendant’s contaminated food caused the illness and not some other food that the plaintiff ate in the intermediate period.

To prove that your illness resulted from a specific food item, you may need to have a stool sample tested for the presence of the same microbes that were found in the contaminated food. If testing shows a match, your case will be much stronger. Similarly, if you can link your illness to a wider outbreak of foodborne illness, you will stand a better chance of recovery.

Enjuris tip: If you get food poisoning, be sure to report your illness to your local health department. Reporting an illness can help public health officials identify a foodborne disease outbreak and keep others from getting sick.

In addition to lack of causation, defendants often avoid liability in food poisoning cases because the damages suffered by the plaintiff aren’t severe enough to warrant the cost of hiring an attorney and pursuing the claim.

Generally speaking, minor symptoms (such as nausea, diarrhea, and dehydration) don’t warrant a lot of expenses. On the other hand, if you’re required to spend time in the hospital or you develop a long-term health issue, damages can be significant.

Before deciding whether to pursue a claim, talk to a product liability attorney near you. An attorney can help identify potential damages and may even be able to tell you if a class action lawsuit is a possibility. 

Enjuris tip: Learn more about class action lawsuits here.

Here at Enjuris, we hope you never experience food poisoning. But if you do, you can use the Enjuris Lawyer Directory to locate an attorney in your area. Most attorneys offer free initial consultations.

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