Food Poisoning: New Case Law Allows Inferences

San Diego victims of food poisoning, who suffer personal injury as a result, can now prove the cause of their illness through inferences. In Sarti v Salt Creek, Ltd. [No. G037818. Fourth Dist., Div. Three. Oct. 27, 2008.] a California Court of Appeal held that a plaintiff may prove food poisoning via an inference that the food caused the illness.

The Sarti plaintiff ate raw Ahi tuna at the defendant restaurant. She became nauseous and chilled the next day and then developed diarrhea which continued for the next ten days. She soon was unable to move her legs and having a hard time focusing her eyes. She was taken to the hospital where a neurologist diagnosed a variant of guillain-barre syndrome (a disease that damages peripheral nerves). She was tested, and found to have campylobacter bacteria. Expert testimony would later indicate that Sarti’s guillain-barre was an idiosyncratic immuno-suppressant reaction to the constant diarrhea brought on from campylobacter.

Ms. Sarti, who was about 21 years old at the time she came down ill, never completely recovered. She had to use a walker for eight months, and to this day retains only about 40 percent of what would have been her normal endurance.

After trial, the jury returned a verdict of $725,000 in economic damages and $2.5 million in pain and suffering. The judge, after announcing he agreed with the jury’s decision, nonetheless overturned the verdict stating he felt obliged to follow the holding of Minder v. Cielito Lindo Restaurant (1977) 67 Cal.App.3d 1003. Minder held that a plaintiff may not prove a food poisoning case by an inference that the food caused the particular illness.

The Sarti court examined the reasoning behind Minder and held that it was erroneous and no longer good law. In particular, the court found that the Minder court had misinterpreted prior cases in reaching its holding. As a result, plaintiffs may now prove the cause of their food poisoning via a reasonable inference that the food eaten was contaminated. This greatly reduces the burden on those who have become ill as a result of poor sanitary practices at a restaurant.

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