A Thanksgiving charity dinner in San Francisco seems likely to end up in court after three people died and at least 14 people were sickened. The church-sponsored meal at the American Legion hall in Antioch, California served food prepared by various people at home. People became sick within 24 hours of the dinner.
The meal was free as part of an annual tradition that is similar to such dinner all over the United States. Some 835 people were served, including people from assisted living facilities and homeless people. The turkeys, hams, and other dishes were donated by volunteers while other dishes like instant mashed potatoes and stuffing, gravy and green beans were purchased in packets. Some of the people who became sick ate food that was brought home from the dinner.
Such charity functions often raise challenging problems. These dinners serve a large number of people but they do not charge for such services. However, that does not protect them against tort liability. The case is reminiscent of Samson v. Reising, 62 Wis. 2d 698 (1974). On February 6, 1968, Pearl Samson attended a luncheon, which was put on by the Wauwatosa High School Band Mothers Association (an organization organized to give support to the high school band) at the Wauwatosa Trinity Episcopal Church. Pearl Samson paid $ 1.25 and ate a luncheon consisting of turkey salad and dessert. On Wednesday evening she became nauseated. She eventually was found to have salmonella food poisoning. Turkey samples were later found to have salmonella. Nine different mothers cooked the turkeys. This case ultimately turned on the court’s interpretation of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur used to prove such cases with a paucity of proof. The doctrine requires “(1) The event or accident in question be of the kind which does not ordinarily occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; and (2) the agency or instrumentality causing the harm must have been within the exclusive control of the defendant.” The court found that first criteria satisfied but ruled that it failed on the second criteria of exclusive control. They could not prove which of the band mother’s Turkeys was the culprit so all of the band mothers walked.
The San Francisco case could present similar issues in any tort action. Negligence could be presumed from the fact that so many fell ill. There also appears to be some food that could be tested. Having volunteers preparing meals for hundreds of people can be a dangerous situation. However, California and U.S. laws do offer for food donors and food pantries under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (the Good Samaritan Act). The federal law is meant to protect donors of food as opposed to preparers of food:
(1) Liability of person or gleaner.–A person or gleaner shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product that the person or gleaner donates in good faith to a nonprofit organization for ultimate distribution to needy individuals.
“(2) Liability of nonprofit organization.–A nonprofit organization shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product that the nonprofit organization received as a donation in good faith from a person or gleaner for ultimate distribution to needy individuals.
“(3) Exception.–Paragraphs (1) and (2) shall not apply to an injury to or death of an ultimate user or recipient of the food or grocery product that results from an act or omission of the person, gleaner, or nonprofit organization, as applicable, constituting gross negligence or intentional
(E) in subsection (f), by adding at the end the following: “Nothing in this section shall be construed
to supercede State or local health regulations.”.
California law expressly exempts negligent preparation from immunity coverage:
Section 1714.25 (a) Except for injury resulting from negligence or a willful act in the preparation or handling of donated food, no food facility that donates any food that is fit for human consumpt ion at the time it was donated to a nonprofit charitable organization or a food bank shall be liable for any damage or injury resulting from the consumption of the donated food. The immunity from civil liability provided by this subdivision applies regardless of compliance with any laws, regulations, or ordinances regulating the packaging or labeling of food, and regardless of compliance with any laws, regulations, or ordinances regulating the storage or handling of the food by the donee after the donation of the food.
Contra Costa County Health Services normally issues a “community event/temporary food permit” designed for one-time or infrequent events where large volumes of food are served at places “with limited physical facilities and equipment.” There is still a requirement of an inspection by a Contra Costa Environmental Health inspector, in large part to ensure sufficient sanitation and hygiene to prevent the spread of “germs that cause diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, fever and, in certain circumstances, death.” Here the chief likely culprit would be clostridium perfringens, a bacteria that causes illness with undercooked meats.