Whether you broke a tooth or became ill from something in your food, we unpack your right to seek compensation for your foodborne injuries.
Each year, 48 million people in the United States get sick from foodborne illnesses. Of those, 128,000 people end up in the hospital, and at least 3,000 die from their illness. ¹
The numbers are certainly higher due to under-reporting, considering how many people get sick at home and chalk it up to a “stomach bug.”
Aside from the “chocolate is healthier than lettuce” memes, food poisoning is no joke.
Hard or sharp foreign objects in food are choking hazards that can cause traumatic injuries to the teeth, mouth, and digestive tract.
When you select and purchase food for your family, or sit down to a meal away from home, you have the right to expect your food to be clean and safe.
When you or a family member are hurt or get seriously ill from food poisoning, you need to to know your options for seeking financial compensation.
Food Poisoning Causes and Symptoms
Figuring out where a case of food poisoning began isn’t always easy, especially if symptoms don’t start right away.
However, there are categories of foods that are most often the culprit behind outbreaks of food poisoning, where several people all get sick after eating the same foods.
The most common foods associated with food poisoning outbreaks are:
- Produce: Almost half of all outbreaks of food poisoning (46%) are traced to fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Within this food group, leafy vegetables like lettuce cause the most illnesses.
- Meat and Poultry: Pork, beef, game, chicken, and turkey are involved in 22% of food poisoning cases. Bad meat or poultry, especially poultry, account for 29% of deaths from food poisoning.
- Dairy and Eggs: At least 20% of all food poisoning is attributed to dairy or eggs. This food category is responsible for 15% of the deaths from foodborne illnesses.
- Fish and Shellfish: A little over 6% of all cases of food poisoning are caused by fish and seafood, and about 6.4% of food poisoning fatalities.
Germs that Cause Food Poisoning
There are more than 250 kinds of diseases linked to contaminated food. Many foodborne diseases are highly contagious, meaning easy to spread to other people.
Common foodborne illnesses include:
- Salmonella: 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.
- Norovirus: Also known as Norwalk Virus, Noroviruses are highly contagious, and the most common cause of foodborne gastrointestinal problems, often blamed on a “stomach bug.” Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. Diarrhea is more common in adults, while vomiting is more common in children.
- Shigella: Shigella bacteria is most often transmitted when food handlers don’t wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom. Symptoms of Shigella poisoning include bloody diarrhea and severe stomach cramps, usually lasting 5 to 7 days.
- Clostridium: Commonly known as botulism, Clostridium botulinum can quickly spread in canned foods that aren’t properly sealed, 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.
- Listeria: Listeria tends to occur in raw milk products, soft cheeses, and processed meats, like hot dogs and deli meats. Symptoms include fever, stiff neck, confusion, weakness, vomiting, and sometimes starts with diarrhea.
- Campylobacter: 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.
- Escherichia coli: Commonly called E.coli, some forms of this bacteria 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.
For more information visit this FDA Chart of Foodborne Disease-Causing Organisms.
People at Risk of Complications
Anyone of any age can get food poisoning. However, some groups of people are more likely to get sicker, develop complications, or die from a case of food poisoning.
At-risk groups include:
- Pregnant women
- Young children
- Older adults
- People with immune systems weakened from medical conditions, such as diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, organ transplants, or HIV/AIDS
- People receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatments
Injuries from Foreign Objects in Food
When an object ends up in your food that doesn’t belong there, like glass, plastic, pebbles, nails, screws, hairpins, and any other foreign object, you may be injured from chewing or ingesting the item.
Sometimes naturally occurring materials can also cause injuries, like fish bones, cherry stones, or bits of clam shells. When food is advertised as being free of the harmful object, like “pitted olives” you may have the right to compensation if the unexpected object in your food injures you.
Injuries from foreign objects can include:
- Broken teeth
- Punctured gums
- Lacerations inside the mouth
- Jaw or TMJ injuries
- Damage to the esophagus
- Damage to the stomach or intestines
- Potential surgery to retrieve the swallowed object
What to Do After Finding a Foreign Object in Your Food
No matter where you are when a hazardous item in your food causes injuries, there are immediate steps to take that will help if you later decide to file an injury claim or lawsuit.
Foreign Objects in Restaurant Food
- If you are eating at a restaurant and find something in your food that shouldn’t be there, immediately ask to see a manager. You’ll want restaurant management to know what happened.
- If you had carry-out, still call the restaurant to notify the manager of the foreign material in their food.
- If you’re injured, ask the manager to provide the name and contact information for the restaurant’s insurance company.
- Write down everything the manager said to you, including any apologies or excuses for the hazardous object in your food.
- Take pictures of the object on your plate, and close-ups of the object. Also, take pictures of the restaurant menu or something to establish your location.
- If you broke a tooth or suffered cuts in your mouth, see a dentist or doctor right way. Be sure to tell your care provider exactly when, where, and how you were injured.
Foreign Objects in Packaged Food
- If the foreign object was in packaged food purchased for home use, save the can, box, or packaging from the product, and your grocery receipt if you still have it.
- Take pictures of the hazardous object next to the food it was in. Take pictures of the packaging.
- If you broke a tooth or suffered cuts in your mouth, see a dentist or doctor right way. Be sure to tell your care provider exactly when, where, and how you were injured.
Food Safety Laws and Liability
Food manufacturers, packing facilities, retailers, restaurants, and other commercial food enterprises are strictly regulated by state and federal authorities to ensure food safety for consumers.
Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law in 2011, greatly expanding the powers of the Food and Drug Administration to protect U.S. health and safety.
An important part of the FSMA includes specific regulations designed to prevent contamination of the food supply. The rules are intended to dramatically reduce the occurrence of food poisoning outbreaks in the United States.
Case Summary: Criminal Food Poisoning
In 2006, more than 600 people in multiple states were sickened by an outbreak of Salmonella food poisoning.
Investigators traced the outbreak to tainted peanut butter produced in a Georgia manufacturing plant owned by ConAgra Foods. The tainted peanut butter was sold under the Peter Pan brand and Walmart’s Great Value brand.
Court records show that ConAgra was aware of positive testing for Salmonella in the Georgia plant as early as 2004.
In 2016, ConAgra agreed to an $11.2 million settlement. The settlement included an $8 million fine and a $3.2 million forfeiture to be paid to the federal government.
Federal Food Alerts and Recalls
For the latest information on food safety alerts and recalls, visit:
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Recalls and Alerts
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts
State Food Safety Laws
Every state and territory in the U.S. has rules, regulations, and guidelines governing the manufacturing and distribution of food products.
Each state also regulates, licenses, and inspects businesses that sell food products. Depending on the state, the rules apply to grocery stores, restaurants, catering services, and even farmer’s markets.
Find your location on this FDA table of Retail and Food Service Codes and Regulations by State.
Compensation for Foodborne Injuries
Manufacturers, stores and restaurants are legally bound 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.
When a person files a lawsuit because they were sickened by contaminated food, the legal basis for blaming the manufacturer is called strict product liability.
To win a strict product liability claim, you must show:
- The food product was contaminated when you bought it.
- You stored and prepared the food according to the directions provided.
- The contaminated food was the direct and proximate cause of your injury.
- You have verifiable damages.
Comparative Negligence May Affect Your Claim
Before filing a contaminated food injury claim, be sure you didn’t contribute to your own injury.
If you got sick from eating potato salad that sat out on the picnic table all afternoon, you wouldn’t get far blaming the mayonnaise company, especially if anyone who ate the same salad earlier in the day was fine.
Similarly, if you are sickened by eating a can of soup that expired two years ago, you will share most, if not all the blame for your illness.
To have a legitimate claim against the seller or manufacturer of a food item, you must be able to show the item was contaminated when you purchased it. If not, you’ll have a tough time winning your claim.
Winning Claims Need Good Evidence
Evidence is the key to a successful food contamination claim. Without evidence, you can’t connect your food poisoning to the responsible restaurant or commercial handler.
How to gather critical forms of evidence:
- Save food wrappers or packaging. Labels often have codes that will indicate when and where the food was packaged.
- Save your receipt from the store or restaurant.
- Get immediate medical attention. Be sure to tell your doctor what you ate, and when you ate it. Request copies of your medical records and bills for your evaluation and treatment.
- Ask family or friends who saw you eat the tainted food, or saw the symptoms of your food poisoning, for a written statement of what they saw and the timing involved.
- Ask your employer for a statement of lost wages if you missed work because of food poisoning.
Workers’ Compensation for 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).
You probably will qualify for worker’s comp if your employer had the food brought in by a caterer, or you ate tainted food at a work-related event.
Unfortunately, you may not be eligible for workers’ compensation if you brought tainted food into work with you, or you were out on your lunch break and ended up eating bad food.
In either case, 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.
When You’ll Need an Attorney
If you’ve completely recovered from a minor bout of food poisoning and have little or no medical bills, your case probably isn’t strong enough for a full-blown lawsuit.
For serious claims, you’ll need an attorney to help you get fair compensation from the corporate giants.
You’ll need professional legal counsel for claims involving:
- Children injured by poisoned or adulterated food
- Wrongful death food poisoning claims
- Severe or permanent injuries from foodborne diseases
A skilled personal injury attorney will know whether you should pursue compensation from the food manufacturer, grocery store, restaurant, or a combination of negligent parties.
Reputable personal injury attorneys usually won’t charge for your first meeting. Most attorneys will represent injury victims on a contingency fee basis, meaning the attorney’s fees won’t be paid unless your case settles or you win a court verdict.
There’s too much at stake to try handling a serious food poisoning claim on your own. Find out what an experienced injury attorney can do for you.
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