Can Restaurants Be Held Liable If a Customer Gets Sick?

Most people have experienced an upset stomach after a restaurant meal and wondered if they had food poisoning, but some cases of food poisoning are more than an upset stomach. Severe food poisoning is serious and can take weeks of medical treatment for recovery, causing significant financial hardship from medical bills and lost income. Food poisoning victims also experience intense pain and suffering that sometimes lasts for weeks and requires a long recovery period. Food poisoning has significant consequences when severe, but is the restaurant owner liable for damages to the victim like medical bills and lost wages from time away from work?

How Dangerous Is Food Poisoning?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), around 48 million people suffer from foodborne illnesses each year, but fortunately, most people recover within a few days. Only about 128,000 foodborne illness cases require hospitalization each year, but about 3,000 of those hospitalized food poisoning victims die. 

Food poisoning occurs when infectious organisms contaminate food and then multiply. When cooking doesn’t kill the contamination or the contamination occurs after cooking, the infectious organisms are transferred into the person who consumes the food, causing symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, cramping, headache, weakness, and fever.

 Common infectious organisms that cause food poisoning include:

  • Listeria
  • Salmonella
  • Botulism
  • Campylobacter
  • E. Coli
  • Hepatitis A
  • Norovirus

 Left untreated, serious foodborne illnesses can cause dehydration and death.

What Kind of Lawsuit Is A Food Poisoning Case?

A food poisoning claim or lawsuit is not a personal injury case. Instead, it’s a product liability case. Manufacturers and retailers have a duty to provide safe products that won’t cause harm to consumers. This means they are held strictly liable, so injury victims do not have to prove negligence, they only have to prove that the product was defective—the food was contaminated—the contamination caused the illness, and the injury victim suffered damages from the illness.

What Evidence Do I Need for a Food Poisoning Lawsuit?

Proving a food poisoning case can be challenging. Unlike a slip-and-fall case in a store with a surveillance video, becoming infected through a foodborne pathogen isn’t something visible on video. Proving that the illness was caused by the restaurant requires evidence such as medical records proving a food-borne pathogen was present in the sick person’s stool, and that the contamination occurred from food they purchased in a restaurant. Besides medical records, a food poisoning victim may need to provide evidence that others in the restaurant who ate the food at the same time suffered similar illnesses. Finally, the victim must provide evidence of their “damages,” or the consequences of the illness.

What Damages Can I Recover for a Food Poisoning Case?

When a consumer becomes seriously ill after eating in a restaurant, they may require a stay in the hospital and expensive medical tests, medications, and procedures. They may miss work during the lengthy recovery period. Common compensation in food poisoning cases covers the following:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost income
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Punitive damages

Courts typically only award punitive damages in cases of egregious negligence or misconduct, such as intentionally serving spoiled food to customers or making high-risk decisions such as leaving food out overnight and then serving it the following day.

Because these cases are challenging to prove, it’s best to hire an experienced personal injury attorney in Austin with investigative skills.