Summer is a popular time in Georgia for outdoor events such as weddings, barbecues, and fairs. When attending such events, you need to be aware of food safety. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-based illnesses are more common in the summertime, and this is largely due to the fact more people are “cooking and eating outside” where “the usual safety controls that a kitchen provides, like monitoring of food temperatures, refrigeration, workers trained in food safety and washing facilities, may not be available.”
Patterson v. Kevon, LLC
The Georgia Supreme Court recently examined a personal injury lawsuit involving an alleged incident of food poisoning that took place at a catered wedding. The plaintiffs alleged they got sick after eating food provided by the defendant, a barbecue company, at a wedding rehearsal dinner. More precisely, the plaintiffs said the defendants’ food “was defective, pathogen-contaminated, undercooked, and negligently prepared.”
The defense moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs could not show a direct causal link between eating their food and getting sick. The defendants noted that other food prepared by third parties was also served at the wedding rehearsal. In addition, the plaintiffs consumed other meals on their way to the wedding. Given this, the defense maintained it was impossible to identify the underlying cause of the plaintiffs’ food poisoning.
The plaintiffs responded by pointing to several witnesses who attended the same dinner and “became ill with similar symptoms after eating [defendant’s] food.” Many of these witnesses did not consume the third party food. Altogether, between 16 and 20 people experienced food poisoning at the same event.
Despite this evidence, both the trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals held the plaintiffs could not proceed with their lawsuit unless they could “exclude every other reasonable hypothesis regarding the cause of their illness.”
The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that “summary judgment was not appropriate” in this case because the plaintiffs presented “circumstantial” evidence that contradicted the defense’s attempts to blame the third party food vendors. This evidence “went well beyond  general allegations” and has not been rebutted by the defense to this point. Indeed, the Supreme Court pointed to the lack of any expert testimony that might shed some light on alternative causes of the plaintiffs’ food poisoning. So at this stage of the litigation, the plaintiffs still have a viable theory of “proximate cause” tying the defendants’ negligence to the plaintiffs’ injuries.
More to the point, the Supreme Court rejected the defense’s assertion–which the Court of Appeals endorsed–that there is a “special element” of proof that is “unique” to negligence cases involving food poisoning. The plaintiff need not exclude all other potential causes. Rather, he must meet the same burden of proof as other personal injury plaintiff with respect to causation.