According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year 48 million Americans get sick from food contamination and poisoning, of which over 3,000 people die (1).
We expect that the food at restaurants and supermarkets will be clean, edible, and free from contaminants. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Thousands of us contract food poisoning every day, causing nausea, weakness, flu symptoms, vomiting, and in severe cases, organ failure.
Common bacterial causes of food poisoning:
Salmonella can be found in milk, pork, meat, chicken, and eggs. When food is improperly refrigerated, or when uncontaminated food comes in contact with food already infected (cross-contamination), Salmonella quickly spreads. Symptoms of Salmonella poisoning normally last from 24 to 48 hours, and rarely cause permanent injuries.
Shigella bacteria is most often transmitted when employees don’t wash their hands thoroughly enough to remove fecal matter. Symptoms of Shigella poisoning include bloody diarrhea and severe stomach cramps, usually lasting 5 to 7 days. Common treatment includes antibiotics such as ampicillin, nalidixic acid, and trimethoprim.
Clostridium botulinum (botulism) is found in the soil and fertilizer used to grow commercial food. When canned foods aren’t tightly sealed and oxygen seaps in, clostridium botulinum can quickly spread, becoming toxic. Symptoms include double vision, severe nausea, lethargy, droopy eyelids, trouble speaking and swallowing, and impaired breathing. It can be fatal in 3 to 10 days.
The invasive form of listerosis is a potentially fatal disease caused by eating food contaminated with this bacteria. The disease affects primarily pregnant women, newborns, adults with weakened immune systems, and the elderly. It can be prevented with proper food sanitation practices.
Campylobacter is found in poultry products. It’s primarily spread when poultry is undercooked or under-refrigerated. Symptoms include diarrhea and dehydration, lasting up to 7 days. Antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin, gatifloxacin, or moxifloxacin are commonly prescribed to treat Campylobacter infection.
Escherichia coli (E.coli)
Escherichia coli can cause serious damage to the intestinal tract. It’s normally found in undercooked and raw meat. Symptoms last from 7 to 10 days, and can include bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases, kidney failure. Treatment for E.coli includes antibiotics.
Here’s a helpful chart of food poisoning information:
The Law and Food Poisoning Claims
The law requires food manufacturers, treatment facilities, retailers, restaurants, and other commercial food enterprises to exercise reasonable care when dealing with food for sale to consumers. If they are negligent, and produce contaminated food, they can be held liable for any resulting injuries.
If you’ve been the victim of commercial food poisoning, you may be entitled to compensation for your damages. Here are some options for recourse:
- If your symptoms only lasted a couple of days and didn’t require medical treatment, you may not have a very strong case. You can write to the food manufacturer or restaurant owner and complain, but you may only be rewarded with a free meal or vague apology.
- If your symptoms were a little worse, you can try to handle the claim yourself, or file a small claims lawsuit. With these options, your pain and suffering for those two days may be enough to recover some compensation, but you’ll need a record of treatment, even if it’s just a doctor’s note.
- If you got seriously ill from food contamination or poisoning, or you suffered permanent injury to an organ or your immune system, you may have a very strong case. In this situation, you’ll need to retain an experienced attorney. The stakes are too high to go it alone.
Here are a couple of examples showing the difference between realistic and unrealistic food poisoning claims:
Example: Mild food poisoning
Jim dined at a restaurant one evening. The next morning he woke up ill, with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and a general feeling of the flu. He was sure those chicken wings he ate were tainted with Salmonella or other bacteria. He called in sick to work and stayed home for a couple of days to rest. After about 48 hours he felt well enough to return to work.
Jim suffered no permanent damage, nor did he have any medical costs. In this situation, his pain and suffering by itself would probably not be enough to form the basis of a personal injury claim.
Example: Organ damage
Betty purchased a chicken for dinner at the supermarket. The morning after, she woke up violently ill, with symptoms of vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, and a high fever. After calling in sick to work, she began to feel even worse, so she went to the emergency room.
The doctors admitted Betty into the hospital, where she stayed for a week. She was diagnosed with E. coli poisoning and had suffered permanent kidney damage.
Under these circumstances, Betty would have the basis of a substantial personal injury claim. Her damages included medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses for medications, nursing care for her infant, and lost wages. More importantly, she suffered extreme pain and permanent organ damage.
Evidence is the key to a successful food contamination claim. Without evidence, you can’t connect your food poisoning to the restaurant or commercial handler who’s responsible. Credible evidence is essential to the success of any personal injury claim.
How to gather critical forms of evidence:
- Save the wrapper or packaging the food came in. Labels often have the “Sell By” date on them, and even the smallest amount of organic material can be tested for Salmonella and other bacteria.
- Save your receipt from the store or restaurant.
- If you dined with friends or family, ask them to confirm in writing they were with you the night you were poisoned. This can be especially important if you don’t have your receipt.
- Get the names of the manager and other employees who were working at the establishment. Their statements may be important, especially if they know of dirty conditions, undercooked food, or inadequate refrigeration.
- Save copies of medical records, bills, and receipts for any expenses related to your food poisoning.
If you contracted food poisoning while on the job, you may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Under workers’ comp rules, you’re entitled to medical treatment, out-of-pocket expenses, and about two-thirds of wages lost while recovering (they don’t include pain and suffering).
In addition to workers’ compensation benefits, you may be able to file a claim against the manufacturer of the food product, especially if you can prove the food was the direct cause of your poisoning. In a separate claim like this, you can seek compensation for the full amount of your lost wages, as well as an amount for pain and suffering.
The Role of Attorneys
Only an experienced personal injury attorney can handle a serious food contamination or poisoning claim. Corporate restaurant enterprises, food manufacturers, and processing plants won’t just admit their food is tainted. Without an attorney, they will merely brush off a layperson’s allegations. If you’re serious about your case, find an attorney.
Gather your evidence and make appointments with several attorneys in your area. Most don’t charge for initial office consultations. They can assess your situation and determine if you have grounds for a personal injury lawsuit.
If your case is accepted, the attorney will advance all the costs of depositions, food testing, subpoenas, etc. If the case settles, or wins at trial, your attorney gets 33 – 40 percent of the verdict or settlement. If your attorney loses, you’ll owe nothing.
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