When an individual suffers bodily harm or property damage caused by a product that is unreasonably dangerous or unsafe, that individual may file a lawsuit against the company that designed, manufactured, sold, distributed, leased, or furnished the product.

That is, the company may be liable for the affected individual’s injuries and may be required by the law to pay damages. This is known as product liability. And expectably, the law governing this kind of liability is known as the product liability law.

Here we will be discussing product liability as it relates to the food industry. However, you must bear in mind, that this article is just a simplification of a subject that has been treated in-depth in many books. Also, you should remember that product liability laws vary by state and country, and everything stated in this article might not necessarily be in line with what obtains in your location.

How Product Liability Is Related to the Food Industry

Now, coming to the food industry, a company that manufactures, sells, distributes, or packages food products will be held liable for any illnesses, deaths, or property damage caused by the food product to consumers. This might arise from no fault on the part of the company, but it will still be held liable under the law. If the court establishes a convincing link between the product and the injuries or deaths caused, the company will be ordered to pay damages to the affected parties. These damages could be up to millions of dollars.

Case Study 1-: A good example of product liability issue in the food industry is the Liebeck v. McDonald case of 1994. In what was tagged “one of the most unbelievable product liability cases in U.S. history,” Stella Liebeck accidentally poured hot coffee—which was purchased from McDonald’s—on her lower body and suffered third degree burns on her thighs, groin, and buttocks.

Her lawyers claimed that McDonalds served coffee at a temperature of 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, which was hotter than the temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit at which other companies served coffee. McDonald’s was held liable for the damages and Liebeck was awarded a jury verdict of $2.7 million in punitive damages and $160,000 for medical expenses.

Similarly, in 2009, nine people reportedly died and 677 people were reported ill after taking contaminated peanuts produced and shipped by the Peanut Corporation of America. As a result, several lawsuits were filed against the company, which has now gone bankrupt.

Another food-related product liability case was that which occurred in 2011, when 32 people were reported dead and hundreds reported injured following their consumption of contaminated cantaloupe purchased from Jensen Farms in Colorado, United States. Myriads of lawsuits were filed against the farm itself, their distributor, and their food auditor. The lawsuits ran into hundreds of millions of dollars (estimate), and the company is now bankrupt.

Many reputable restaurants and food manufacturers are increasingly being implicated in product liability lawsuits alleging long-term health problems resulting from what some people believe are poor diet choices made by the affected individuals. Most of the time, these lawsuits are infused with questions of common sense and personal responsibility.

There has a been an age-long debate among analysts over the role of personal responsibility and common sense in product liability actions and how issues that have social costs should be dealt with, whether through the court system or by legislation.

Legal standards applied in food-related product liability cases

Before now product liability lawsuits against players in the food industry typically involved claims falling into defined categories such as food contamination, exploding beverage bottles, and presence of foreign substances in the food products.

However, more recent cases filed against players in the food industry have expanded those claims and now allege negligence through the production of products that are unhealthy. The injuries alleged in these cases are based largely on the diet choices of affected consumer and thus implicate the consumer’s role on the injury, illness, or death alleged.

Bottom line

No doubt, product liability in the food industry is a good thing. Companies that manufacture, packages, distribute and sell food products will be compelled to ensure that all quality standards are met during the phases of production, storage, and sale of food products.

However, the issue of common sense needs to be addressed. Many consumers have died or suffered injuries as a result of unhealthy diet choices for which food manufacturing and distributing companies should not be held liable. Many times, it seems the eagerness to file lawsuits and win huge awards as damages prompts most lawsuits.