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Personal InjuryWrongful Death

Botulism Outbreak Leads to Need for Civil Litigation

The decision to sue after personal injury sometimes involves a complex internal struggle. Even when the damage is obvious, and the negligence and responsibility are reasonably clear, victims may still face questions about whether civil litigation is the right path to take.

What should one do when negligence leads to a life-long debilitation? And how should one approach the matter when the party responsible for the damages is a church?

A friendly gathering turns nearly deadly

Mitchell and his wife, Gwen*, had recently joined a new church and were looking forward to attending a potluck it was organizing. One church member brought potato salad, which she made from home-canned potatoes. Unfortunately, she hadn’t done the canning properly, and the potatoes were contaminated with Clostridium botulinum—a bacteria that causes botulism.

Mitchell and several others ate the potato salad. Mitchell never considered that with each bite he was exposing himself to the deadly botulism toxin.

The next day, he woke up with a headache and dizziness. His vision was blurred, and he could barely walk in a straight line. He went to work, thinking the nausea and dizziness would pass. But the symptoms grew worse throughout the day, and he went home with what he thought was the flu.

A neighbor, who happened to be related to the church pastor, came by and told Gwen to take Mitchell to the hospital immediately because others who had attended the potluck had demonstrated similar severe symptoms. When Gwen and Mitchell arrived at the hospital, they saw a row of ambulances at the emergency entrance. The potluck had resulted in the largest outbreak of botulism in the last 40 years.

Personal injury from a foodborne illness

Most of us associate a foodborne illness as a passing, though painful, stomach ache. But food poisoning caused by a botulism contamination can be much more serious. The symptoms can appear within 18 to 36 hours after ingesting the contaminated food. Beyond nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps, victims of foodborne botulism can develop paralysis, dry mouth, have difficulty swallowing or speaking, and experience blurred or double vision.

As the infection progresses down in the body, victims can have trouble breathing as muscle paralysis caused by the toxin sets in. The spread of the infection can be stopped with antitoxins, but the damage is irreversible.

Mitchell learned that the hard way. He received the antitoxin within the prescribed 24-hour time frame, but the damage had already been done. After an extended period in the hospital, Mitchell’s vision remained so impaired that he could no longer drive. He had trouble maintaining his balance and found it difficult to do simple chores like mowing the lawn. Brief periods of exertion simply exhausted him.

A food poisoning lawsuit creates a dilemma of conscience

When Mitchell reached out to us for help, we knew this case would involve several litigants, and that it would be in the best interests of all the victims to collaborate with each other. But there was one other complication peculiar to this case: the defendant was the client’s church.

Clearly, negligence was at the root of Mitchell’s illness (as well as that of more than a dozen other church members). And while one woman prepared the potato salad that caused the food poisoning, the church was ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety of those who attended its event.

Fortunately for all the victims, the church accepted responsibility for the epidemic and was open to resolving the civil litigation lawsuits of several different parties through mediation.

Doing the right thing for everyone

The impact of civil litigation extends beyond victims’ damages. It sends a message about negligence and responsibility, a message about protecting the welfare of society. Every restaurant, grocery store or business selling perishable food must take precautions to prevent foodborne illnesses by following regulatory guidelines established to protect consumers. The recent outbreak of food poisoning at a Chipotle restaurant reaffirmed that the threat of foodborne toxins is real whenever proper food-handling guidelines are not strictly followed.

Those same guidelines apply to any organization sponsoring an event where food is served.  Pursuing litigation when negligence leads to food poisoning is one way of reinforcing those guidelines and protecting others from future outbreaks.

The long-term health of the victim depends on quick diagnosis and treatment when foodborne illness is suspected. It’s also important to get the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) involved quickly to isolate the source of the food poisoning.

If you become the victim of food poisoning, seek medical attention immediately. And if you have questions about seeking compensation afterward, give us a call.

Connect with us—we’re here to help.

*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy. 

The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.