To say that we live in a litigious society is, to put it mildly, an understatement. In fact, the annual cost to the US economy for civil lawsuits is $239 billion.
Those in the restaurant industry have only to look at their monthly insurance premiums to understand that much of what they pay is due, in part, to the costly lawsuits that both guests and employees may file. So, let’s take a look at the top reasons restaurants get sued and just what steps you can take to minimize the chance of this painful occurrence.
The Top Three Reasons Restaurants Get Sued
- You may be surprised to find out that the number one claim against restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association, is “slip and falls.” Personally, I expected food poisoning to take the number one spot. But, according to the National Safety Council, more than 25,000 slip-and-fall accidents occur every day. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Help minimize your chances of falling into this category (no pun intended) by instituting proper training and putting policies in place that will mitigate this potential disaster that can cost you in upwards of $100,000. Make one person responsible for conducting floor inspections and keep written documentation of the policy and procedures concerning both cleaning and inspections that includes date and time. Be sure to include regular bathroom inspections where water can produce a hazard.
We know how work and demand can pile up in this industry, delaying necessary documentation. However, once an injury occurs, it’s too late to put your “due diligence” in writing.
A few other areas to consider: Make sure your mats and rugs are commercial grade no-slip with edges that lie flat against the floor and train your employees to remain vigilant when it comes to cleaning up spills and moving objects that are intruding onto commonly used pathways. One of the most common scenarios for a slip and fall is an employee working by a sink or fryer vat. An article in QSR Magazine claimed that 50 percent of these types of accidents occur in these areas.
- Altercations are another common reason for lawsuits against restaurants. This is particularly true for those restaurants that serve alcohol. What is your policy for an inebriated guest and is your staff aware of it? Knowing the steps to take before an altercation occurs can limit your liability as well as keep your guests and staff safe. A hands-off policy with a call in to law enforcement is usually recommended should an unruly or disruptive patron refuse to leave the premises.
Once again, retain written policies regarding your procedures in these instances and train employees accordingly. Every state has varying “dram shop laws” that do, or do not, make sellers of alcohol liable for the negligent acts of an intoxicated patron. While most states do not allow the intoxicated party to sue for injuries sustained, many states do allow third-parties, or those that got hurt due to your patron’s intoxication, to sue. Dram laws are named as such because alcohol use to be sold in a measured unit called a dram.
- Food poisoning or foreign matter in food or beverages is another common reason for lawsuits. Once again, written policies and procedures as well as training protocol will be your best friend in this type of lawsuit. This includes your method for approving suppliers, inventory controls, safe food handling, hygiene practices and cross-contamination protocol. Knowing you and your supply chain are steadfast in your efforts to ensure quality and safe food can help avoid this type of lawsuit. Chipotle knows all too well the after affects when accused of failing to maintain food safety standards.
Food poisoning can, though rarely, be fatal and this type of lawsuit can lead to a wrongful death claim.
Of course, we’ve all heard about the obscure lawsuits that no one can plan for. One of the most talked about was the woman who sued McDonalds when she spilled hot coffee in her lap and was awarded $2.86 million. Another hard to imagine lawsuit was the class-action that occurred when someone measured Subway’s foot-long sandwiches only to find out that they were being gypped out of an inch. Unbelievable. My personal favorite is the customers who sued Starbucks because they put ice in their iced drinks, leading to less actual coffee than they paid for. Huh?
If you find yourself in a lawsuit, remember to keep your own council until you obtain a lawyer. Speaking to other people about the situation puts both of you in an untenable position that can lead to more harm than good should they receive a subpoena. In addition, never admit you are at fault until after speaking with an attorney, and do not lose or destroy any potential evidence. Your attorney will most likely attempt to dismiss the case. If that proves unworkable, they may recommend settling the case out of court. This action lowers legal fees, keeps it out of public records, and allows for a settlement without admittance of wrongdoing.