After 19 people in Portland and Seattle have become sick with E. coli, the Mexican food restaurant Chipotle has closed 43 locations in Oregon and Washington pending food safety investigations. Among the 19 people injured, 8 have required treatment in hospitals. Fortunately, none of those injured by unsafe food have suffered fatal injuries.
Denver-based Chipotle has described the measure of closing 43 locations as done in an “abundance of caution.” While no particular food item had been tied to the outbreak, 17 of the 19 injured people had eaten at a Chipotle restaurant between October 14 and 23. Governmental authorities are investigating Chipotle locations by taking food samples, in an effort to isolate the cause of the outbreak.
Following an E. coli outbreak, a common difficulty faced by health inspectors and governmental officials is that the symptoms of infection are nonspecific, including vomiting and diarrhea. Frequently some infections are attributed to other causes and not counted in the total for the outbreak.
The distance between the infections-Portland to Seattle-suggests the possibility of problems in the supply chain at Chipotle stores in the northwest.
Under California law, food items are treated the same as other products for purposes of personal injury liability. California food safety law for years relied on a California Supreme Court decision called Mix v. Ingersoll Candy Co. (1936) 6 Cal.2d 674. The Mix Court set forth a test for food safety personal injury liability that remained in place until 1992: there was no liability for injuries caused by a component of a food item that was a “natural part” of the rest of that food. Under this case, there would be no liability for a bone inappropriately left in a chicken breast because of bone is a “natural part” of chicken.
This antiquated rule changed in 1992 with a case called Mexicali Rose v. Superior Court (1992) 1 Cal.4th 617, in which the plaintiff was injured by a chicken bone that should have been removed from a meal. Changing the law in the state, the Supreme Court applied the same rule to food items that applied to other dangerous products: food should satisfy a consumer’s reasonable expectations, including those related to safety.
In the context of an E. coli outbreak in California, such as that happening in Portland and Seattle, injured consumers would have various theories of liability upon which they could file a lawsuit against Chipotle. Among them would be the strict products liability argument that no reasonable consumer expects his or her food to contain E. coli, and certainly expects it will not cause them injury.
Among the products liability claims that the attorneys at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger prosecute are those related to food safety. If you or a loved one has suffered symptoms of a food-related injury, contact us to discuss your legal rights.