Tort law cases involving instances of food poisoning are particularly complex. It can be difficult to pinpoint the specific source of exposure. Especially as our supply-chain for food distribution has become global and more intricate. In the absence of a standard that requires substantial proof on the behalf of the plaintiffs could very well receive damages from the incorrect party. No less of an injustice than the injured party does not receive adequate compensation. Unfortunately, this leaves the litigant with the burden of proof. This standard was solidified in the 1941 court decision Franke’s Inc V. Bennett The burden of proof can be an onerous obstacle in retrieve compensation for illness engendered by a restaurateur’s negligence. However, this helps avoid frivolous lawsuits and also ensures that the true offender is the one to compensate the victim.
The seminal case in question to an incident in 1940. On January 15, 1940, a deputy city clerk for Hot Springs, Arkansas dined at the appellant’s cafeteria for lunch. The accuser consumed several food items including scallops. The litigant had never eaten scallops before and could not verify if they had an odd flavor. After return to her office at city hall, she became violently ill and was sent home. Upon returning home her illness persisted and she had to be hospitalized. The appellee was treated for her illness and returned to work the following Monday. The physician that examined Bennett diagnosed her condition based upon a list of food items she had consumed in the past several days. Leading to a diagnosis of “ … acute poisoning due to seafood…”. However, this inference was not based upon a careful analysis of the contents of the plaintiff’s stomach. As a result of this inconclusive and somewhat rudimentary inference on the part of the doctor, Bennett decided to pursue $3,000.00 in damages to offset the costs of medical treatment.
Bennett’s claim of consuming deleterious scallops at Franke’s Cafeteria was far from an airtight case. In the absence of precise analysis, how can the source of illness be attributed to the scallops served at the cafeteria? The plaintiff also ingested a salad, cornbread, carrots, and a slice of cake. Without definitive proof that the scallops were tainted or unwholesome, how can the treating physician be so sure that his patient’s ailment wasn’t caused by another food or beverage? The veracity of this claim can only be further scrutinized by the fact that Bennet was the only patron to complain of any sickness. The scallops were served to thirty-six people on January 15th. Failing to rule out the potential of an allergy or other food sensitivity to scallops. Upon further inspection of the cafeteria’s facilities, no violations could be found. The cafeteria followed all food handling and refrigeration requirements mandated by law. Demonstrating that even making a circumstantial argument against the establishment based upon unsanitary conditions infeasible. Leading the court to rule:
“ We do not think that the mere fact that a person eats food in a restaurant, hotel, cafeteria and therefore becomes ill of itself sufficient to establish liability on the owner, but proof must go further and show that some particular article of food was unwholesome and unfit for human consumption. Otherwise, such a business would be fraught with hazard..”
This is a valid point. Each time someone develops a stomach ache after eating at a restaurant should they be able to sue the owner for damages? If so the potential for innocent eateries being finically liable for damages that were not caused by their establishment is somewhat perverse. Often we are concerned with the rights of victims in instances of Tort Law, what about the right of those being accused? Theoretically, we wouldn’t condemn a man to death row on scant evidence. It stands to reason that we wouldn’t do the same in cases requiring compensation for damages. Any proper form of jurisprudence recognizes the precarious balance of just adjudication in such cases. If we cannot determine if the connection between dining at a restaurant and subsequent illness being anything other than coincidence, then expecting the restaurateur to pay for the plaintiff’s medical bills is tantamount to ruling in favor of frivolous lawsuits. It effectively operates as an implicit form of theft. Being forced to pay restitution for the harm we did not inflict is an injustice. It is arguably equally as unjust as denying a compensation claim when rightfully owed to a victim. If the law does not express this level of reciprocal protection a disservice has been done to all entrepreneurs in the foodservice industry. If the rule of law has been weaponized to function as a wealth extraction mechanism, what incentive is there to open up a restaurant or deli? Especially if any person can claim without ample evidence they contracted food poisoning from your establishment and then expect you to compensate them for their medical expenses.