While California restaurants have a duty of care to provide safe food for their customers, restaurant food makes people sick more often than we think. An estimated 48 million Americans get food poisoning yearly, and restaurants are responsible for a whopping 44 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks.
That doesn't even speak to the number of people who have allergic reactions to restaurant food because the restaurant didn't provide correct information about allergens.
According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans are the most common allergens.
Under United States law, food labels must contain allergen information. Any amount of the substance, or even proteins, must be disclosed. Food allergy laws in restaurants aim to prevent misunderstandings, confusion, and ultimately harm from inaccurate or undisclosed information.
Food poisoning is a foodborne disease that is caused by contaminated food, in which bacteria may have developed due to poor handling of food. Some examples of food poisoning bacteria and infections include E. Coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Norovirus, Shigella, Mercury, Campylobacter, Botulism, and Hepatitis A.
The symptoms usually include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramps, fever, chills, loss of appetite, and fatigue. While seeking a doctor's advice is highly recommended, many symptoms will subside soon. The specific medical advice is to drink plenty of fluids and rest.
Here's the critical question: is the restaurant liable for food poisoning or allergic reactions, and can you sue them for damages if this happens to you?
The short answer is yes. Under California law, restaurants may be liable for incidents of food poisoning or triggering food allergies. But there are a few qualifiers. Food poisoning and allergies are two issues, so let's look at each below.
When Are Restaurants Liable for Food Poisoning?
Serving food to people is a public trust, and for that reason, the food service industry in California is highly regulated. Restaurants have an inherent duty of care to serve food that is not contaminated and will not make people sick.
When they fail to meet that duty of care, and someone becomes ill, the restaurant may be liable for damages under California's negligence laws. Food contamination may happen in one of several ways:
- The food may not have been appropriately handled, such as it fell on the floor or was stored at an improper temperature.
- The food was spoiled but was served anyway.
- The food was contaminated by someone sick or with open wounds.
- The food was undercooked.
- The food was already contaminated when it arrived at the restaurant from the supplier.
The interesting twist regarding the last point (contaminated when it arrived) is that under California's product liability laws, anyone who sells a defective product can be held liable if that product causes injury, even if the party who sold it was unaware of the defect.
That means the restaurant can technically be sued for serving food it didn't realize was contaminated, even though they weren't negligent.
However, there may also be shared liability in such cases—for example, if the contamination can be traced to the supplier, the manufacturer, or the grower, any of these parties might also be liable for your illness.
Of course, the challenge in food poisoning lawsuits is proving that the food that made you sick came from the restaurant. A personal injury attorney may use specific techniques to prove this point, such as having any leftovers tested for contaminants or investigating whether anyone else got sick after eating at the restaurant.
Food poisoning is often hard to diagnose because its symptoms resemble the flu and other common stomach viruses. However, if food poisoning is diagnosed, proving that a restaurant is responsible may be difficult because symptoms may not manifest for days.
If you can pinpoint the origin of your food poisoning to a particular restaurant, you must consider that restaurants are subjected to vigorous checks regarding sanitation and safety.
Many state and federal laws must be upheld to ensure standards for food consumption safety. Suppose there is a breach of these standards.
In that case, the restaurant can be liable for your food poisoning. In many cases, negligence can be traced to the restaurant's supply chain, such as the producer of certain foods provided to the restaurant that might have been contaminated with bacteria.
When Are Restaurants Liable for Triggering Food Allergies?
If you have a food allergy, you know that even the tiniest trace of the allergen can cause a severe reaction. While restaurants are not legally required to accommodate people with food allergies, they may voluntarily provide warnings about common allergens on their menus.
Still, they are required to provide accurate information about the ingredients in their dishes upon request. That means if you have a severe allergy to peanuts, for example, and you ask whether a dish contains peanuts, the restaurant must give you an honest answer.
If the restaurant provides inaccurate information and you have a reaction, then the restaurant may be held liable under California's negligence laws.
Furthermore, suppose the restaurant staff wrongly enables cross-contamination of an allergen into the food (i.e., the food is contaminated with an allergen it should not have contained). In that case, you can also hold the restaurant liable in those cases.
So, yes, you can sue a restaurant for an allergic reaction injury. There are numerous ways a restaurant may breach its duty of care toward a restaurant patron regarding these things.
If the restaurant could have prevented the harm by being more careful, the victim may recover their damages. Of course, the victim must be able to prove that they're hurt because of allergies at the restaurant. This means you will need the help of an injury lawyer with experience in food allergy cases.
The legal standard for restaurant allergen liability is based on the following:
- Negligence based on the restaurant owner's obligation to conduct business with ordinary care.
- Failure to warn means the restaurant is legally obligated to give patrons the information they need to use the product safely.
- Intentional tampering means restaurant staff will purposefully tamper with food and cause a bad reaction to a food allergen (intentional tort claim).
What Are the Possible Damages for Food Poisoning and Food Allergy Cases?
Suppose you've been sickened by food poisoning or had a severe allergic reaction after eating at a restaurant. In that case, you may be able to recover a variety of damages based on the circumstances and what happened to you.
Specifically, you may be able to recover medical expenses and the cost of treating your illness or allergy. Further, lost wages if the illness kept you from your job or prevented you from working. Also, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.
In some cases, punitive damages may also be available to punish the restaurant for particularly careless or reckless behavior.
Simply put, when you're the victim of a restaurant food allergen or poisoning, you might receive compensation for your financial losses and your suffering.
For moderate or severe allergies, you will likely have medical bills. You could have travel expenses to get to medical treatment. You might need prescription medications or medical supplies.
Any financial loss due to an adverse allergy event could be a part of your compensation claim. You might also deserve compensation for mental distress and physical pain. Furthermore, if you had a loved one who died from an allergic reaction or severe food poisoning, you may be able to file a wrongful death claim against the restaurant.
To review the details of your case, contact our law firm by phone or through the contact form. You don't pay any fees unless we win the case. Injury Justice Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, California.