Food poisoning: the need to show causation
In Bindseil v. McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd. 2009 BCSC 61, the plaintiff developed terrible stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea one day after he consumed food at McDonald’s on June 9, 2004. The plaintiff attended the doctor on June 11 and attended hospital few days later. Despite three tests indicating no abnormalities, plaintiff’s intestinal problems continued. The plaintiff was diagnosed with colitis after the end of July 2004. The plaintiff had seen his doctor in March 2004 relating to bloody diarrhea. Four other patrons of the McDonald’s restaurant that day suffered abdominal upsets and diarrhea. The plaintiff brought an action for damages in negligence resulting from consumption of contaminated food at the defendants’ restaurant.
In dismissing the action, the Court found that the medical evidence did not support a causal connection between ingesting contaminated food and the development of colitis. The Court stated:
33 The onus rests with Mr. Bindseil to prove on the balance of probabilities that he ingested contaminated food at the McDonald’s restaurant and further, that it was the McDonald’s food that caused his colitis.
34 There is very little medical evidence to suggest that the symptoms suffered by Mr. Bindseil were caused by the food that he ate at McDonald’s. The stool samples taken after June 9 indicated no bacterial infection or other abnormality that could have been caused by food contamination. While there was a type of bacteria found in the stool samples taken after July 5, Dr. Gray’s opinion is that Aeromonas is unlikely to have been caused by food poisoning because it is a waterborne bacteria. Neither Dr. Natha nor Dr. Ramji has suggested this bacteria is related to contaminated food.
35 While there were other patrons who became ill coincidentally with their consumption of McDonald’s food, the evidence surrounding their diagnosis and symptoms is less than satisfactory. There is no medical diagnosis of their symptoms and, significantly, there is no evidence of blood in their stool similar to Mr. Bindseil’s experience. Their symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach upset are equally consistent with the flu.
36 Moreover, the fact that Mr. Bindseil suffered the same symptoms two months before the June 9 incident tends to support the defendants’ argument that he had a pre-existing condition of colitis that was aggravated by eating a greasy hamburger. Clearly Dr. Gray’s opinion supports a conclusion that Mr. Bindseil had colitis before June 9 and that ingesting a hamburger, particularly after taking anti-inflammatory drugs, would cause a flare up of his symptoms.
37 Lastly, even if it could be proven that the McDonald’s food was contaminated, the medical evidence before the court does not clearly support a causal connection between ingesting contaminated food and the development of colitis. People develop colitis for a variety of reasons; however, while a bacterial infection may in some cases produce the symptoms associated with colitis, the medical evidence does not indicate that it is one of the causal factors. Neither Dr. Ramji nor Dr. Gray, the only specialists to provide opinions, believes that food contamination is a causal factor in colitis or the development of ulcerative colitis. Dr. Natha’s opinion that it was the hamburger that caused Mr. Bindseil’s colitis amounts to a bare statement without any foundation. In these circumstances, I must prefer the opinions of the specialists in this area of medicine.
38 While Mr. Bindseil relies upon the decision of the Saskatchewan Queen’s Bench in Richards , that case is distinguishable from the facts at hand. In Richards the medical experts agreed the plaintiff suffered from gastrointestinal problems that were the result of food ingestion. The only disagreement was whether the plaintiff’s illness was a result of food poisoning or some other infectious agent. In Mr. Bindseil’s case, there is no reliable evidence that his colitis was caused by food ingestion regardless of whether it was from a toxin or an infectious agent.
39 There is no doubt that Mr. Bindseil suffers terribly from ongoing ulcerative colitis. Further, this disease has adversely affected Mr. Bindseil’s quality of life and his ability to work at his chosen profession. Unfortunately, I am not satisfied that the evidence establishes a causal relationship between contaminated food and the colitis from which he continues to suffer. It is trite law that the plaintiff is not required to establish a causal connection to a virtual certainty. However, in this case Mr. Bindseil was not diagnosed with food poisoning. He was diagnosed with colitis which is a condition that is not normally caused by an intestinal infection from contaminated food.
40 The timing of his illness and the symptoms suffered by the other patron witnesses raises suspicions about the food. However, this circumstantial evidence is not sufficient to establish on a balance of probabilities that either the food was contaminated or that food poisoning caused Mr. Bindseil’s colitis.
The Bindseil decision reinforces the principal of law that even though one may become ill shortly after eating at a restaurant, it is important to ensure that there is sufficient medical evidence to support the claim before initiating an action. It is always important to visit a physician to undergo the proper tests in order to satisfy the court that one’s illness was a result of eating contaminated food.