When you purchase food from your neighborhood grocery store or go out to eat at your favorite restaurant, you are not likely to think about the possibility you may contract E. coli or other bacteria that can make you violently and uncomfortably ill.
Unfortunately, E. coli outbreaks and infections occur all too frequently, and if you are a victim of food poisoning, you could become sick suddenly and have your life put on pause as you seek help for your illness. Although most food poisoning cases can cause significant discomfort and embarrassing symptoms, they can resolve in one to two weeks. This is the time, however, that you may have to miss work, suffer excruciating pain and discomfort, and be unable to go about your life as you normally would.
If you or a loved one contract E. coli from a known outbreak identified by the CDC or you have confirmation of an E. coli infection linked to the food you purchased from a store or restaurant, you may be eligible for compensation for your damages. E. coli is serious and can cause life-threatening complications in some individuals, particularly younger and elderly populations that may not be able to tolerate exposure to these bacteria.
What Is E. Coli?
The term E. coli refers to Escherichia coli, a type of bacteria found in people, animals, foods, water, or environments. Not all E. coli are the same, and it does not always result in illness. In fact, many people may live with E. coli in their intestinal system and have no idea they have it because the particular strain of the bacteria causes no symptoms or harm.
However, a subset of the bacteria are pathogenic and can cause illnesses ranging from mild to severe in individuals who ingest or come into contact with it, often resulting in outbreaks that can affect many people simultaneously. Most of these pathogenic E. coli strains are known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC.
Harmful E. coli can spread through the consumption of contaminated food or water or from an infected person to another individual via hand-to-mouth contact. While it is impossible to know by looking at food or water whether E. coli is present, hand-washing can reduce the risk of contracting the bacteria from an individual with an active infection. Most people who get E. coli do so by eating or drinking water and food with pathogenic bacteria.
Where Can E. Coli Infect You?
E. coli can seep into any food or water source. Anyone can contract E. coli, and narrowing down where you got the bacteria is often very challenging. However, it is not uncommon when the source of the illness is frequented by many people or purchased by several consumers around the same time that an outbreak can occur. The CDC defines an outbreak of E. coli as any time that at least two people develop the illness from the same source of food or water.
The National Outbreak Reporting System found 125 E. coli outbreaks across the country over three years, making over 3,800 individuals ill. These are only individuals that reported their illness to an agency or health department and seek treatment from their doctor or a hospital. Many more individuals likely unknowingly become sick from E. coli or do not report their symptoms or seek medical attention.
Of the individuals that become ill, the CDC reports that nearly 600 will require hospitalization due to the severity of the illness, and nine people lost their lives to an E. coli outbreak during this time.
One of the largest E. coli outbreaks tracked by the U.S. occurred in 1999, where 781 people became sick from E. coli from the same source. The illnesses developed from the contamination of drinking water with E. coli at a county fair.
Other notable and recent E. coli outbreaks include contamination of:
- Frozen falafels
- Ground beef
- Cake mix
- Packaged salad mixes
- Baby spinach
- Leafy greens
- Romaine lettuce
- Raw dairy
What Foods Can Cause E. Coli Food Poisoning?
Although contamination of E. coli can occur in any food or water used for consumption, certain types of food are most at risk of having the bacteria present. At the highest risk of having E. coli are foods that are raw or not properly cooked, such as meats and vegetables. Additionally, consuming unpasteurized milk can cause exposure to E. coli bacteria.
An everyday consumer can buy products from retailers such as grocery stores that have E. coli. Another way a consumer can develop E. coli-related illness is to eat at an establishment or purchase cooked food from an establishment that is using products contaminated with the bacteria or where contamination of the food occurs due to failed food safety procedures and protocols.
Contaminated water with E. coli is also a source of illness when people drink from the same water source or use the water to clean food.
Common causes of E. coli illness include:
- Handling or eating raw or undercooked meats, including ground beef products
- Handling or eating raw or undercooked poultry
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Leafy greens and sprouts
- Raw milk or products using raw milk
- Unpasteurized juices
What Are the Symptoms of E. Coli?
Most people will not know they have E. coli until the uncomfortable symptoms develop, which can happen in a matter of hours to days after exposure to the bacteria. The most common symptoms relating to E. coli illness are gastrointestinal. However, some strains of E. coli can lead to dangerous complications, including damage to your kidneys.
The E. coli symptoms can make it impossible for an infected person to go about their normal daily activities or work. Often the symptoms cause so much discomfort that an individual may seek help from their doctor or at an emergency room.
Signs that you may have an E. coli infection include:
- Stomach pain and cramping
- Blood in stools or bloody diarrhea, which is a hallmark of a STEC infection
- Low-grade fever
- Urinary tract-related symptoms
How Can You Confirm Where the E. Coli Came From?
One of the biggest challenges to seeking compensation for an E. coli illness is the confirmation of where the E. coli came from. When you seek treatment for E. coli symptoms, and a medical provider suspects food poisoning, they are likely to conduct testing to confirm the source of the illness.
A doctor can often determine the pathogen associated with your symptoms through laboratory tests of a stool sample. However, while a laboratory test of your stool can confirm you have the illness, it does not tell you where you contracted the bacteria.
Most often, a person becomes aware of an E. coli outbreak through the media when the FDA or another agency announces a recall or potential outbreak from exposure at a common location. Another common way a person may link their illness to a source is when others around them or known to them become sick with the same illness.
If you become sick with a confirmed case of E. coli that you suspect is from something you ate, state health departments may wish to interview you about your food history to determine the source of this illness. This determination is critical to whether or not you can successfully bring a legal claim.
Can You Sue If You Suffer Food Poisoning From E-Coli?
A lawsuit from an E. coli illness is possible when you know the party or parties responsible for your exposure to E. coli. Recalls and notices of outbreaks serve as vital resources to victims of E. coli illness to determine how they developed the illness.
If you develop food poisoning from E. coli, you may have a right to seek damages under strict liability or personal injury laws of your state. However, you may also have a claim for damages under any available insurance policies of the parties involved.
Restaurants and manufacturers of consumer products have liability insurance policies in place to help protect them from claims of injury from victims that may become sick from E. coli or another illness after consuming their food. If you develop E. coli, you may file an insurance claim for your losses.
A personal injury lawyer with experience handling food poisoning cases can evaluate the facts of your case and determine your legal options and the best way to proceed to seek the compensation you deserve for under the law.
E. coli infections of the urinary tract (UTIs) are not typically actionable, as E. coli is a common cause of these infections and does not produce gastrointestinal symptom (STEC).
What Damages Can a Victim of E. Coli Pursue in a Claim?
As a victim of food poisoning that develops E. coli, you can pursue monetary compensation for both economic and non-economic losses related to your illness and recovery. E. coli can cause distressing symptoms that leave you unable to work and meet your day-to-day responsibilities until the illness and its effects resolve.
Some people who develop life-threatening complications from E. coli, such as kidney damage, may not fully recover and could face lifelong implications and challenges from the effects of the illness on their bodies.
Examples of compensatory damages a victim of E. coli food poisoning could seek in an insurance claim or lawsuit include:
- Reimbursement or payment of medical bills for treatment of E. coli, including medications, hospitalizations, and follow-up needs.
- Lost wages due to the illness
- Pain and suffering from the illness and effects of the illness on your physical and mental well-being
What Parties Could You Hold Liable for E-Coli?
Determining who is responsible for an E. coli outbreak and illness is something a food poisoning lawyer can help you with. Food poisoning cases and tracking down the source of the illness and the parties ultimately responsible can be complex and tedious.
Filing a claim or lawsuit can involve significant investigation and research into medical records, health department records, and agency investigations and recalls. If you become sick because of E. coli and know or suspect how you developed the food poisoning, then a lawyer can help you determine who may be liable to you.
Parties that may be liable in an E. coli food poisoning case include:
- Insurance company, if coverage is available
- A retail establishment that sold you the product or food contaminated with E. coli
- Manufacturers of the food or product contaminated with the bacteria
Can E. Coli Kill?
Although most people who contract E. coli from their food or water recover, that is not the case for all victims. Sadly, people die because of E. coli. Certain individuals susceptible to severe diseases, such as the very young, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems, could face serious health complications because of the E. coli bacteria that ultimately lead to their death. The strain of E. coli that a person contracts can also affect the severity of the illness and complications. Certain E. coli strains are more dangerous than others.
What Can You Do if a Loved One Dies From E. Coli?
If a loved one dies from a confirmed E. coli illness, you may seek damages against the party or parties responsible. You can hold a manufacturer or establishment that sold your loved one contaminated food for their death and the impact on your family.
Do You Need a Lawyer for an E. Coli Food Poisoning Claim or Lawsuit?
To try to get compensation from a retailer, restaurant, or manufacturer for a food-borne can present challenges that you will probably not overcome without a personal injury attorney.
In most instances, the liable parties will deny the existence of E. coli or deflect blame for your illness onto you or another party. A food poisoning attorney can determine if you have a valid claim for damages and who you can make a claim against to seek money for the compensation of your losses after an E. coli illness.