Food Poisoning Lawsuit: Can You Sue a Restaurant for Food Poisoning?

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You can sue a restaurant for food poisoning if you can prove that it served unsafe food as a result of negligence or contamination in the supply chain. Food poisoning can lead to gastrointestinal health consequences, organ failure, and death. If you or your loved one has suffered a foodborne illness from a restaurant, a food poisoning lawsuit could help you recover significant financial compensation.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
  • Food poisoning in restaurants typically occurs due to contamination, proliferation, and survival of pathogens in food, often resulting from poor hygiene practices or improper food storage and handling.
  • You can sue a restaurant for food poisoning if you can establish that consuming their food resulted in illness due to the restaurant’s negligence or provision of unsafe food.
  • Successful food poisoning lawsuits against restaurants require evidence of illness linked to the restaurant, such as medical records, contaminated food testing, and documentation of the restaurant’s unsafe practices.

Foodborne pathogens threaten the food supply at all stages of production, from the farm to your plate. Under the right conditions, they can infiltrate your food and multiply to toxic levels. Food service establishments owe the public a duty to ensure these conditions never exist by implementing and enforcing proper sanitation, food storage, and food handling practices.

How Common Is Food Poisoning at Restaurants?

More than 4,600 foodborne outbreaks in the United States from 2000 to 2020 were associated with restaurants, according to the Journal of Public Health and Emergency. Restaurants are the most common source of food poisoning, accounting for approximately 45 percent of all outbreaks. 

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention studied 800 food poisoning outbreaks in 25 states that could be traced back to 875 restaurants and catering companies from 2017 to 2019. It found that the most common infections were Norovirus and Salmonella and that infectious workers are often to blame.

Most food poisoning happens to people not impacted by recognized outbreaks. The FDA reports that 48 million people in the United States suffer from food poisoning every year. Of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

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How Does Food Poisoning Occur at Restaurants?

Food poisoning occurs when you consume food that is contaminated with pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, molds, parasites, or chemicals. Bacteria is the most common type. Food poisoning primarily occurs through one of the following three avenues:

You can sue a restaurant for food poisoning regardless of when or how the germs entered the food. Restaurants have a significant responsibility because they serve as a final barrier between foodborne pathogens and the public.

Contamination

Food can become contaminated while growing on the farm, during processing, or during transport before it ever reaches the restaurant. This doesn’t mean food poisoning is inevitable. Even if the food arrives at the restaurant contaminated, restaurants can often mitigate it through proper food handling practices.

In some cases, contaminated foods can never be made safe. Restaurants have a duty to procure foods from reputable sources and to train employees to be aware of red flags. They should be aware of recalls and FDA public health advisories. They should also set high standards for their suppliers and transport companies.

Contamination sometimes occurs at the restaurant. According to the CDC, infected food service workers are responsible for 40 percent of foodborne infections and are the most common cause of food poisoning. Contamination can also occur as a result of:

It is important to note that once food has been left in the danger zone for too long, it can attract heat-resistant pathogens that can survive cooking and cause infections in people who eat the food.

Proliferation

Proliferation of foodborne pathogens occurs when disease-causing agents multiply or create other toxins. The risk of proliferation is highest when restaurants store food at improper temperatures. Food is an ideal environment for microbial growth because it contains nutrients and moisture. 

The most prolific pathogenic growth occurs at temperatures between 40° F and 140° F. This is known as the danger zone. Foods should never spend more than two hours at these temperatures. Restaurants should also store cold foods below these temperatures and hot foods at higher temperatures.

The most common mistake that leads to the proliferation of foodborne pathogens is cooling food too slowly. Even in the refrigerator, food that cools too slowly can spend too much time in the danger zone. The FDA recommends using a two-step cooling procedure to cool foods quickly and safely. Foods should be cooled from 140°F to 70°F within two hours and to 41°F or cooler within four hours.

Other mistakes that can lead to the proliferation of disease-causing agents include the following:

Survival

Survival of pathogens happens when restaurants carry out processes designed to kill pathogens, but it doesn’t work. It isn’t always possible for food to arrive 100 percent free of bacteria, but restaurant staff can easily kill most bacteria by using proper food handling practices. The most common mistakes that facilitate survival are inadequate sanitation and failure to cook or cool foods to safe temperatures.

Pathogens in seafood can survive unless frozen at a temperature of -20° F and stored for a minimum of seven days in the freezer after it is solid. Storage requirements are shorter at lower temperatures. Many pathogens can survive freezing temperatures above these levels.

Pathogens in raw meat, fish, and poultry can survive until they are cooked long enough to reach sufficiently high internal temperatures, which varies based on the type of meat.

Whole red meat should be cooked to internal temperatures of at least 145°F and measured with a thermometer. They should be allowed to rest for at least three minutes before carving. Ground red meats should be cooked to at least 160°F, and all poultry and leftovers should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F.

What Are Common Sources of Food Poisoning at a Restaurant?

Food may become contaminated during production, processing, transport, or handling at the restaurant. The original sources of contamination are typically infected animals and contaminated water. Some foods become contaminated at the restaurant due to cross-contamination due to careless food handling. The foods that are most often contaminated include:

Food poisoning deaths are most commonly caused by contaminated poultry, dairy, vegetables that grow on vines or stalks, fruits and nuts, leafy vegetables, pork, eggs, fish, and beef.

Recent Outbreaks

Food poisoning outbreaks are so common that you have likely heard about them on your local news station multiple times. A few notorious examples are discussed below.

Norovirus Outbreak in Raleigh

At least 241 patrons who dined at Sushi Nine in Raleigh, North Carolina, from late November to early December of 2023 contracted norovirus, causing gastrointestinal distress. The source of contamination was never identified. The manager claims it must have been an infected patron, but it could have been an infected worker. In any case, the high number of cases may indicate improper sanitation which caused the food poisoning from sushi.

Wendy’s Fast Food Chain Multistate E. Coli Outbreak

Investigators traced a multistate E. coli outbreak to Wendy’s establishments throughout the United States. They determined that beef patties and lettuce are the most likely sources, but officials have been unable to confirm a common source. 

E. coli comes from the animal feces. Wendy’s employees may have facilitated the spread of E. coli by not washing their hands after using the restroom, failing to wash the lettuce properly, exposing the lettuce to raw meat, or undercooking the ground beef patties. At least 84 people were infected.

Shigellosis Outbreak in Seattle

At least five people contracted shigellosis from eating at Bamboo Sushi in Seattle, Washington, in October of 2023. Environmental health investigators traced the cause to improperly stored wiping cloths and an inadequately stocked handwashing station.

Salmonella Outbreak Near Boston

At least 48 people contracted Salmonella at Los Amigos Taqueria in Brighton, Massachusetts, in May of 2023. Health inspectors found numerous safety violations including:

These violations prompted health officials to shut the facility down in response to the outbreak and again after finding similar violations in July.

Chipotle’s Multistate Outbreak

In 2020, Chipotle Mexican Grill agreed to pay a $25 million fine and institute a comprehensive food safety program to settle criminal charges after more than 1,100 people contracted Norovirus. This stemmed from five separate outbreaks from 2015 to 2018. The source was employees who worked while they were sick with the virus or too soon after recovering.

When Is The Restaurant Liable?

You may be able to hold a restaurant liable for food poisoning if you can prove you became sick and suffered financial and personal losses as a result of eating unsafe food at the establishment.

Restaurant employees frequently breach their duty of care. A CDC survey found that fewer than half of managers provided workers with paid sick leave. While most establishments had policies restricting workers from coming to work sick, only 16.1 percent had policies in place that complied with all of the FDA’s sick worker guidelines. 

According to the FDA, the five most common employee behaviors that lead to food poisoning include:

How to Sue a Restaurant for Food Poisoning

If you are suing a restaurant for food poisoning that made you or your child sick, you can file a personal injury lawsuit. If the food poisoning resulted in the death of a family member, you can sue a restaurant in a wrongful death lawsuit.

In either case, you may be able to sue on the grounds of product liability or negligence. In product liability cases, restaurants can be held strictly liable for distributing unsafe food. It is unnecessary to prove negligence in product liability cases that involve strict liability.

It is possible to argue strict liability and negligence in the same lawsuit. In a negligence claim, you must prove that all of the following elements of negligence occurred:

  1. You were a customer, so the restaurant owed you a duty of care.
  2. The restaurant breached the duty of care.
  3. You suffered a foodborne illness that you would not otherwise have suffered.
  4. The breach of duty is the actual and proximate cause of your illness.

The type of claim you can file varies based on the laws of your state and the specifics of your case. A knowledgeable food poisoning lawyer can determine the type of lawsuit that is right for you.

How to Prove Food Poisoning at a Restaurant

To prevail in a food poisoning case against a restaurant, you will need evidence to support that you are sick and that your illness came from food that you ate at the restaurant. In a negligence claim, you will also need to prove that a restaurant worker’s action or inaction caused or contributed to the food poisoning.

Proving that you suffered from food poisoning will require medical records. Most foodborne illnesses are diagnosed through blood tests or stool tests. You will need to complete these tests as recommended by your doctor to confirm your diagnosis. You will then need proof that the illness originated at the restaurant. To prove this, you will need one or more of the following pieces of evidence:

You should report your case of food poisoning to your local health authority as soon as possible after it occurs. This will lead to an investigation. If your case is part of an outbreak, federal agencies such as the CDC, USDA, and FDA may participate in the investigation. These investigations are detailed and can identify the specific source of your infection. You will need this evidence to support your case.

You will also need documentation of your damages, such as money paid for medical care, time missed at work, and testimony about how much pain and suffering you experienced.

If you happen to have leftover food from the contaminated batch, photographs of the food can be valuable evidence. You could also turn it over to health authorities for testing and confirmation about the presence of pathogens. 

If leftovers are unavailable, that is okay. Writing down pertinent facts about the food while your memory is still fresh can also be valuable. The most important information you should include is listed below:

A reputable food poisoning lawyer can help you gather the evidence you need, retrieve your medical records, and help you prove your claim. When you contact our dedicated foodborne illness lawyers, we will perform our own investigation of your case, including testing of food and food preparation areas, interviewing employees, reviewing health inspection reports, and talking to your doctors.

How Long Do I Have to Sue a Restaurant for Food Poisoning?

The statute of limitations is a law that limits the amount of time you have to file lawsuits. The deadline varies based on whether you file a negligence claim, product liability claim, or wrongful death claim. 

Each state sets its own statutes of limitations. The deadline governing personal injury lawsuits is typically one to three years from the date you were poisoned or the date you realized you were poisoned. Product liability statutes of limitations are often longer.

Statutes of limitations are not always clear depending on the facts of your case. If you guess wrong and file your lawsuit after the deadline passes, your claim will likely be dismissed in court. This will result in you losing your opportunity to recover compensation and hold the restaurant accountable. 

This is why you should contact an experienced food poisoning attorney as soon as possible. We can determine how the statute of limitations applies to your case and file your claim well ahead of the deadline.

What Compensation Can I Receive from a Restaurant Food Poisoning Lawsuit?

Compensation available in a restaurant food poisoning lawsuit may include economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages compensate you for losses that easily reduce to a monetary value, while non-economic damages compensate for aspects of your losses that are more subjective in nature. Together, they may compensate for things like:

If you lost a loved one, you can also pursue compensation for your loved one’s probable lifetime earnings had they survived, your loved one’s final expenses, and their medical expenses. Depending on the laws of your state, you can also recover damages for loss of companionship, loss of love/affection, loss of support, and your loved one’s pain and suffering.

If the conduct of the restaurant or its employees leading to the food poisoning was outrageous, you may also qualify for punitive damages. Punitive damages are known as non-compensatory damages. Although they can be significant, their purpose is not to compensate a victim but to punish the defendant.

Some states cap the non-economic damages and punitive damages you can receive. Our experienced foodborne illness lawyers can advise you of any damage caps in your state and prepare an estimate of your case value after reviewing your claim.

Foodborne Pathogens Found at Restaurants

A wide variety of pathogens can cause food poisoning. However, some are more prevalent than others. Common causes of food poisoning include:

E. coli

Escherichia coli is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of humans and animals. Several types of E. coli exist. Most are harmless, and some are even beneficial. However, some are pathogenic to humans, which means they can lead to illness. The most common pathogenic E. coli is Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC. The most common strain of STEC is the 0157:H7 strain.

STEC 0157:H7 can cause bloody diarrhea and lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. This is a type of kidney failure. Young children and elderly adults are most at risk of developing HUS from an E. coli infection, but it can happen to anyone. HUS affects five to ten percent of people with STEC infections. It can lead to long hospitalizations, permanent organ injuries, and death. 

Symptoms from E. coli infections generally emerge three to four days after exposure, but you may experience symptoms as soon as one day after exposure or as long as ten days later. If HUS develops, it occurs an average of seven days after the first symptoms when the diarrhea is improving.

E. coli 0157:H7 comes from the intestinal tracts of certain animals, such as cattle, goats, and sheep. STEC doesn’t make the host animals sick. The most common infection sources include:

Salmonella

A Salmonella infection is known as salmonellosis. It is one of the most common types of food poisoning in the United States, causing 1.35 million cases, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths annually.

Salmonella lives in the intestines of people and animals. Infection can occur as a result of the following:

Tainted chicken and eggs are among the most common sources of Salmonella. You can also contract salmonella by eating undercooked foods or foods that have been stored near contaminated meat and poultry. Even food that was once good, like an egg, can develop Salmonella if it was left out too long.

It can cause diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. Symptoms typically emerge six hours to six days after exposure and can last four to seven days. However, symptoms may not emerge until several weeks after infection and may last for several weeks. Some people suffer long-term changes in their digestive system, though most recover without treatment or complications.

Young children, older individuals, or those with weakened immune systems may develop severe cases of salmonellosis. Severe diarrhea can also lead to dehydration, which can be life-threatening. Other complications of severe salmonellosis include the following:

Severe Salmonellosis has become increasingly difficult to treat because it is more and more resistant to antibiotics over time. This limits treatment options, allows progression, and increases the risk of long-term complications or death.

Norovirus

Norovirus is also known as the stomach flu or a flu bug. It is highly contagious and can be passed from person to person. It is the most common type of foodborne illness in the United States and accounts for nearly half of all foodborne illnesses, according to the CDC. Symptoms include the following:

The most common way restaurants infect people with norovirus is by allowing infected people to work in the kitchen area. Infected people are most contagious while they have symptoms and for the first few days after recovering. Some people are contagious for two weeks or longer.

Food can become contaminated when a contagious worker touches it with an ungloved hand. Norovirus can also produce airborne droplets and infect you directly or land on food and food surfaces. It can contaminate drinking water and water used to irrigate vegetables, both of which can spread to people.

Norovirus outbreaks most commonly originate from leafy greens, fresh fruits, and raw or undercooked shellfish, especially oysters.

Listeria

Listeria is the third leading cause of death from foodborne illness in the United States. According to the CDC, pregnant women have ten times the risk of contracting a Listeria infection, which is also known as listeriosis. It causes mild illness if it is confined to the intestines. However, it can spread beyond the intestines, in which case it is considered invasive. 

Invasive listeriosis generally causes only mild symptoms in the mother, but the fetus seems to be its primary target. It can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and life-threatening infections in newborns. Approximately 20 percent of fetuses die from invasive listeriosis.

Non-pregnant people with invasive Listeria infections tend to experience severe illness. Approximately 87 percent of infected patients require hospitalization, and one in six non-pregnant people with invasive listeriosis dies, according to the CDC. Doctors typically treat invasive listeriosis with antibiotics. 

Foods most likely to be contaminated with Listeria include the following:

Listeria can spread from food service equipment onto the food and vice versa. It can also grow in the refrigerator. Pregnant women and vulnerable populations should avoid high-risk foods.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a virus that causes temporary inflammation of the liver. Symptoms include gastrointestinal complaints, yellow skin or eyes, dark urine, and joint pain. Most people recover without permanent harm in about two months, but illness can last for six months. Some people experience severe complications, including liver failure or death.

The CDC received 12,474 reports of Hepatitis A infections in the United States in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. However, officials estimate that the real number is 24,900 because it is often unreported. 

Hepatitis A can be transmitted through contaminated food or water. It is found in the blood and stool of infected people and can spread through the ingestion of even a tiny amount. It can survive outside the body for months. Temperatures of 185 or higher can kill it. Restaurants can prevent Hepatitis A by following basic sanitation practices established by federal, state, and local health authorities.

The good news about Hepatitis A is that a vaccine exists. If you are vaccinated, your risk of contracting Hepatitis A is low. If you know you’ve been exposed, you may be able to prevent infection by receiving a vaccine or immune globulin within two weeks of exposure, based on your doctor’s recommendations.

Botulism

Botulism is a foodborne illness caused by a toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. It attacks the nerves, resulting in breathing problems, paralysis, and death. Botulism is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment and often a ventilator.

Botulinum toxins are found in many places but typically don’t make people sick unless they are in an environment where it is easy for them to multiply.

This environment is most commonly associated with foods that have been canned or fermented in homes, but it can occur in commercial settings, including restaurants. Infants younger than 12 months of age can get botulism from honey.

Vibrio

Vibrio are bacteria that live in coastal waters. They are especially prolific from May to October when the water is warm, and this is when approximately 80 percent of infections occur, leading to vibriosis. 

You can contract vibriosis if you have an open wound that is exposed to saltwater or contaminated food. The most common food source of vibriosis is raw or undercooked shellfish, especially oysters. Vibrio causes approximately 80,000 infections per year in the United States, and 52,000 are foodborne illnesses.

Most people with vibriosis experience a minor illness for about three days with no long-term effects. However, if you are infected with the Vibrio species known as Vibrio vulnificus, you are at risk of developing a serious illness. 

People infected with Vibrio vulnificus have a high risk of hospitalization and may require intensive care. It can result in limb amputation, and 20 percent of patients die, often within days of the first symptoms. Fortunately, this type is uncommon.

Get Legal Help Today

Restaurant owners and their employees put their patrons’ health and even their lives in jeopardy when they fail to take food safety seriously. You may be entitled to substantial compensation if you have suffered a serious foodborne illness after eating at a restaurant or if your loved one died from restaurant-borne food poisoning. Contact Keep Food Safe for help filing a food poisoning lawsuit today.

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