Food-Borne Illnesses

Compensation for Food-Borne Illnesses

Earlier this year, the New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed a $750,000 verdict in favor of a patron of an Applebee’s restaurant who contracted a salmonella infection after eating at that restaurant. A man and his brother-in-law became violently ill within hours after eating Applebee’s hamburgers.

Applebee’s claimed that the man could have contracted salmonella from his pet lizard or from meals eaten at home. Given the timing of the infection and the fact that family members who did not eat at Applebee’s were not infected, the patron’s expert witness ruled out other potential sources of the disease.

Food-Borne Infectious Diseases

Salmonella has a variety of different effects on people. Some who are exposed to salmonella develop no symptoms at all, while others experience diarrhea and stomach cramps. Symptoms can be severe and, in the case of pregnant women, children, and older adults, can be life-threatening. Symptoms usually appear 8 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food.

In some cases, a salmonella infection can lead to more serious health conditions, particularly if the infection spreads beyond the intestines. Salmonella can affect the brain, spinal cord, heart, and bone marrow if it enters the patient’s blood.

Other food-borne bacteria also place restaurant patrons at risk. Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni) is usually found in undercooked chicken. The bacterial infection typically causes inflammatory diarrhea or dysentery.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a relatively common bacteria in food, but only a few E. coli strains are likely to cause serious disease. Typical symptoms include cramping and diarrhea, but the nastiest strains of E. coli can lead to kidney failure.

Undercooked meats and raw vegetables are a common source of E. coli infections. More than 50 people across 15 states recently became infected with E. coli that was traced to romaine lettuce grown in California.

Listeria monocytogenes are usually found in undercooked meats. The bacteria may also be present in hotdogs and deli meats.  Like other food-borne bacteria, listeria can cause diarrhea. It can also cause listeriosis, a serious condition characterized by fever, headache, stiff neck, muscle aches, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions.

Noroviruses are a leading cause of foodborne illness, usually from produce or shellfish. These viruses are harder to trace because they can also be spread by person-to-person contact.

Restaurants and Disease Outbreaks

The risk of transmitting food-borne bacteria can be minimized by washing raw vegetables carefully and by thoroughly cooking chicken, hamburgers, and other meats. When restaurants fail to carry out those safety precautions, they can be held responsible for making a patron ill and giving them the disease.

Outbreaks of E. coli are frequently traced to restaurant food preparation. For example, a restaurant that recently purchased lettuce grown in California could contribute to an E. coli outbreak by failing to wash the lettuce thoroughly before using it in salads or adding it to sandwiches.

Earlier this year, E. coli infections in New Jersey that caused eight people to be hospitalized were traced to lettuce served by Panera Bread restaurants. In recent years, E. coli outbreaks spanning eleven states have been traced to Chipotle restaurants. More than twenty people were hospitalized as a result of those infections.

In 2016, four cases of Campylobacter jejuni infections were traced to undercooked liver served by a restaurant in Washington State. That same year, a Campylobacter outbreak in California resulted from a restaurant storing raw chicken next to cooked meats, allowing the bacteria to contaminate meals before they could be served.

Lawsuits involving salmonella contamination have been filed against restaurants around the nation, including Taco Bell, Subway, and the San Antonio Taco chain. Any restaurant, large or small, can be held accountable when it serves food that causes a serious illness.

Restaurant Liability for Diseases

Failing to wash raw vegetables or to cook meat thoroughly is an act of negligence for which restaurants can be held responsible. Failing to require restaurant employees to wash their hands and allowing sick employees to work in the kitchen or as food servers can also spread bacteria that contaminates food, even if the food has been prepared properly. Improper storage of raw meats can also be a negligent cause of infections.

Some states apply products liability laws to hold restaurants responsible for distributing contaminated food. Just as the seller of a defective car can be held accountable for accidents resulting from defects that the seller did not cause, some states hold restaurants strictly accountable for serving contaminated food even though the restaurant did not cause the contamination.

Compensation for illnesses caused by food-borne infections depends on the severity of the illness and whether it is likely to cause recurring symptoms in the future. An experienced personal injury lawyer can evaluate the facts of the case and determine whether grounds exist to bring a lawsuit against the restaurant that is responsible for a patron’s food-borne infection.