It’s back to the trial court for the parties in a 4-year-old Georgia foodborne illness case where guests at a wedding rehearsal dinner were sickened after eating a catered meal of barbecue chicken and some side dishes.

The Georgia State Supreme Court revived the case in a ruling that overturned the state appellate court and again assigns the civil litigation to the trial court where it all began. The high court action means that state juries in Georgia, not trial judges, will decide if victims of foodborne illness have shown sufficient “proximate cause” for their lawsuits to go forward in Georgia.

The State Supreme Court took action by unanimously granting a petition for certiorari in the appeal of a state lawsuit pitting foodborne illness victims Joshua and Taylor Patterson against Big Kev’s Barbeque. In the same ruling, the high court reversed the appellate court’s decision in the case, setting up a rematch in the trial court.

“We find that the standard that has developed over the years in the Court of Appeals has conflated cases at both the trial and summary judgment stages, thus creating the mistaken impression that food poisoning cases ‘are a unique species of negligence cases’ imposing a heavier burden upon the plaintiff,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs in the unanimous ruling.

The barbecue litigation dates back to June 20, 2014, when about 40 guests attended a wedding rehearsal dinner at the Brady Inn, in Morgan County, GA, about 60 miles east of Atlanta. Joshua and Taylor Patterson were among the guests at the dinner, which was catered by Madison, GA-based Big Kev’s Barbeque. Other vendors provided beverages and desserts.

About 48 hours later, while traveling in Flordia, Josh Patterson became severely ill with diarrhea, vomiting, high fever and chills. He went to an emergency room and tested positive for Salmonella. He underwent surgery for an anal fissure.

Taylor Patterson also became ill, and was treated for Salmonella, but was not tested. The couple learned about 17 other guests also became sick after the rehearsal dinner. Four of the 17 testified about their Salmonella-like symptoms.

The Pattersons sued Kevon LLC, owner of Big Kev’s Barbeque, but the trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of the caterer before it went to the jury.

That occurred after what the Georgia Supreme Court ruling critically called “limited discovery.”

“The appropriate legal standard on summary judgment, correctly applied to the facts of the case, shows that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on the issue of proximate cause,” according to the ruling.

The Pattersons’ claim said the food at a wedding rehearsal dinner that was “prepared, catered, and served” by Big Kev’s Barbecue made them sick. They brought the lawsuit in state court under the Georgia Food Act, alleging food at the dinner was “defective, pathogen-contaminated, undercooked, and negligently prepared.”

Big Kev’s moved for the summary judgment, arguing the Pattersons also consumed food made by others, including the desserts and alcoholic beverages. The catering firm also questioned whether the Pattersons might have gotten sick on Florida fast food.

Another dinner guest also tested positive for Salmonella, but the Pattersons acknowledged not being able to “track down everybody.”  Their attorneys fought against the summary judgment by arguing “that in the issue of causation, like that of negligence, is ultimately for the jury.”

The original trial judge granted Big Kev’s summary judgment. He said the Pattersons “had failed to exclude every other reasonable hypothesis regarding the cause of their illness…”

At the state Court of Appeals, Big Kev’s won 5-4 in a split decision. “The majority there held that, while a plaintiff may prevail in a good poisoning case by establishing that the food was defective or unwholesome, in the absence of direct evidence that the food was contaminated, a plaintiff’s circumstantial evidence must exclude every other reasonable hypothesis as to the cause of the plaintiff’s illnesses,” Boggs explained.

He said the appeals court majority found this to be a “heavy burden” for victims of foodborne illness, especially for cases based solely on circumstantial evidence.

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