Can You Sue for Suspected Food Poisoning?

Someone recently asked me if she could sue for food poisoning, as she was convinced that a restaurant had served her a contaminated meal that led to extreme symptoms.  I get this question about once a year, so thought I would make that a blog topic today.

The problems with these kinds of cases typically involve both causation and damages.  Just like with Florida automobile accidents, a person claiming to be injured (or rendered ill) must prove that another party is liable.  In other words, it is not enough just to prove damages. Proving another person was at fault, with said fault leading to the injury or illness, is called the “causal link.”  This is where food poisoning cases get tough.

Most of the time, food poisoning legal questions involve someone eating a meal out, and then getting very sick later that night.  This was my response to just such a scenario:

Keep in mind that food poisoning can have a latency period of up to 72 hours, and normally (but not always) no symptoms until the next day at the earliest. Therefore, the onset of symptoms of the same night may not even be consistent with food poisoning from food ingested that night, but that would be up to a medical expert. Which leads to the problem, unless you have a lot more information to tie it to the food at the restaurant, then the odds of a doctor going on the record and saying it was that meal are slim. 



I can give you a personal example of when my wife and I got food poisoning, and unlike most instances I hear about, it was very clear that the food we consumed was the cause of our illness.  We were at a dinner & awards banquet in 2005, and became incredibly ill the next day to the extent that we nearly visited the local emergency room. Over 50 people, most of whom we knew on some level, attended the banquet. Thereafter, we were able to ascertain that over 80% of the attendees became very ill at the same time we did, with some requiring hospitalization! The Florida Department of Health actually called to interview us.

A typical restaurant meal is different, because you don’t have access to everyone that dined that night, and not everyone is consuming the same thing. Such information could potentially be obtained through litigation, but it is possible not everyone who was ill called the restaurant. Unless the damages are significant, then most lawyers would likely tell you that a claim would be difficult or would not justify the expense due to the poor likelihood of proving causation. Having gone through true food poisoning, I can certainly empathize. It’s horrible!

Keep in mind, although the above response would be my typical opinion in a possible food poisoning case, there are exceptions.  For example, some types of bacterial food poisoning can have significant damages that would justify further legal inquiry.   Claims of wrongful death have even surfaced over food poisoning, which could happen if a person was already frail and unable survive severe dehydration or other complications.