Over the past decade, Marler Clark has recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for people grievously injured, or even killed, as a result of foodpoisoning.  And not a penny of what these people–the worst of the worst illnesses–recovered was undeserved.  

But our legal system certainly is not immune to unfortunate scenarios.  We’re not too far removed–nor could we ever be–from an incident that got several late-night TV hosts lots of laughs.  And all at the expense of a lowly one inch piece of finger—uncooked—“found” in a bowl of Wendy’s chili. Claims and counterclaims have flown, but most indications point to, at best, a grotesque hoax, and perhaps more appropriately, an illegal act.

That some people see fit to bring such bogus, unsupportable claims of foodborne illness, much less expend the time and effort necessary to conjure such a ridiculous ploy, is unfortunate not only for those directly involved, but also for the people, often the very young and the very old, who really have been injured by dangerous foodborne pathogens. As a law firm that has represented thousands of people legitimately sickened or killed by pathogenic foodborne bacteria and viruses, we are uniquely situated to see and comprehend the backlash that cases like the “finger-in-my-chili” case has had. It has done nothing but drain precious resources, erode faith in our civil justice system, and waste everyone’s time; and perhaps most importantly, baseless claims like these divert health officials’ and company Food Safety Directors’ time and attention from the truly important—i.e. food-safety concerns—to the truly absurd. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur in the United States every year. Reduced to a simpler statistic, this means that one in four Americans will contract a foodborne illness every year by eating food that has been contaminated with such lethal pathogens as E. coli, Salmonella, Hepatitis A, Campylobacter, Shigella, Norovirus, and Listeria. Approximately 325,000 of these individuals will be hospitalized, and 5,000 will die.

Although understandable when something sensational hits, like the “finger-in-my-chili” case, the food industry’s collective reaction to bogus illness or injury claims has been north of extreme. Such claims are greatly over-emphasized, in terms of their frequency and the strain caused to the unlucky restaurant; this is a reaction that leads only to the denial of legitimate complaints of foodborne illness. Denying legitimate claims increases the likelihood that restaurants and food manufacturers will overlook real problems with food safety, such as bacterial or viral contamination of the products they sell, and the accompanying health code violations, sick customers, costly litigation, and public relations headaches that necessarily follow.

The goal of the food service industry is to produce high quality products that sell well without injuring consumers. With this goal in mind, therefore, everybody’s interests are better served by the fair and efficient assessment of such claims, from health and restaurant officials alike, than by the extreme reaction so often seen. Then, if decided that a claim is bogus, the restaurant industry can and should fight it. But when a claim has merit, it is better to treat a customer fairly and learn from mistakes. This will help the restaurant industry keep its eye on the bottom line as opposed to looking for the finger in the chili.