Can You Sue for Damages for Food Poisoning? What Must You Prove?
There’s a common misperception that food poisoning is little more than indigestion or a few stomach cramps. The reality is that tainted food or food poisoning can be serious and even life-threatening for small children, older adults, and people with immunodeficiencies, and it can cause lengthy illnesses in healthy adults. A particularly virulent case of food poisoning can cause significant physical pain and suffering, keep you from working, and require extensive medical care. Can you seek compensation for your losses when you’re the victim of tainted food?
What Is Tainted Food?
Tainted food is any food or beverage that poses health or safety risks because of the presence of bacteria, parasites, viruses, or other food-borne pathogens. Food or beverages may become tainted in a number of ways:
- Food stored at improper temperatures—According to the Department of Agriculture, when fresh food is stored at temperatures between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria can multiply rapidly. Bacteria typically cannot grow significantly at temperatures below 40 and will die at temperatures above 140 degrees.
- Food coming in contact with unclean items—In food preparation, there are knives, platters, cutting boards, containers, gloves, rags, and other objects that are typically kept at room temperature and used over and over. If those objects are not regularly cleaned, they can collect food-borne pathogens.
- Food improperly stored—Dry goods should be stored where there is little humidity and in ways that protect against pest infestation.
Can You Bring a Lawsuit for Damages Caused by Tainted Food or Food Poisoning?
Yes. In a personal injury claim based on negligence, you must prove three things:
- That the defendant failed to act as a reasonable person would;
- That the failure to act reasonably caused you to suffer injury or illness; and
- That you sustained actual losses because of your injury or illness.
In a claim alleging food poisoning or injury/illness caused by tainted food, you must demonstrate to the jury that the defendant (person from whom you seek compensation) did not do the things a reasonable person would prevent the sale of tainted food. That may involve showing that the defendant failed to keep food at a safe temperature or failed to ensure that all objects the food came in contact with were properly cleaned.
You must then show that the failure to act reasonably “caused” your injury or illness. This requires you to prove that you would not have suffered injury/illness if the defendant had acted reasonably. It also requires that you show that the injuries you suffered were “reasonably foreseeable” as a consequence of the defendant’s actions. If you sustained only mild or moderate injuries that did not require hospitalization or serious medical attention, then it may not make sense to bring a lawsuit.
In a negligence lawsuit, you can seek damages from anyone whose wrongful acts contributed to your injury or loss. With a tainted food claim, that can include a restaurant, grocery store, food delivery service, or other food producer. A class action lawsuit may be brought in situations where a large number of individuals become sick from tainted food that is widely distributed through grocery stores.
In some states, a tainted food claim can be based on legal theories other than negligence, such as strict liability or breach of warranty. Consult with an attorney in your state to determine whether such claims might be available.
Laws Governing Tainted Food
There are extensive federal statutes and regulations in place designed to maximize food safety, with over a dozen federal agencies responsible for enforcing more than 35 statutes. The primary federal agency with authority and responsibility for food safety is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Food safety is also monitored and enforced through state and local health agencies. The FDA provides extensive guidelines to promote food safety, including regulations governing cooking, cooling, storing, refrigerating, reheating, and holding food.
Local, state, and federal agencies may impose sanctions against individuals or companies who violate food safety laws and regulations. In cases involving tainted food that is widely distributed through grocery stores, the FDA may issue a recall. But government agencies do not have the authority to compel defendants to pay damages to injured victims. To get compensation, you must file a personal injury claim.
Recovering Damages for Food Poisoning
In a lawsuit involving injury or illness caused by tainted food or food poisoning, you can ask a jury to award compensation for:
- Lost wages or income
- Any unreimbursed medical expenses resulting from your illness
- Physical pain and suffering caused by your illness
- Loss of companionship or consortium experienced because of your illness
- The inability to engage in activities that you love or normal activities of daily life as a consequence of your illness
If you suffer injury, illness, or loss because of food poisoning or tainted food, you may be able to bring a personal injury claim for damages. To succeed, you must show that the defendant did not take reasonable steps to ensure food safety, and that, as a consequence, you suffered injury or loss.