Find out whether you can sue a restaurant for your injury
In the fast-moving world of the food service industry, restaurant owners and operators strive to provide a safe and relaxing dining experience for their patrons. However, accidents happen, and when they do, liability becomes one of the main questions on everyone’s mind.
Imagine the scene: A lively restaurant filled with laughter and chatter, the clink of glasses, and the smell of freshly cooked food. Suddenly, a patron’s face turns red and they clutch their throat.
Who’s responsible if the patron chokes?
In this article, we’ll take a close look at the complex world of restaurant liability, discussing the legal obligations of restaurant owners and operators and the steps you should take if you’re injured in a restaurant.
Common restaurant injuries
Restaurant patrons can experience a variety of accidents and injuries. Here are some of the most common:
- Slip and Fall Accidents: Slip and fall accidents are common in restaurants due to wet or slippery surfaces, uneven flooring, or poorly lit areas. For example, a patron may slip on a freshly mopped floor with no warning sign, resulting in a fractured wrist.
- Burn Injuries: Scalding hot beverages, food, or improperly maintained equipment can cause burn injuries to patrons. For example, a waiter may accidentally spill hot coffee on a customer, causing a second-degree burn.
- Foodborne Illnesses: Patrons may contract foodborne illnesses due to improper food handling, storage, or preparation. For example, a customer may suffer from severe food poisoning after consuming undercooked poultry contaminated with Salmonella.
- Choking on food or ingesting a foreign object: Restaurant patrons may choke on food or even ingest a foreign object. For example, a patron may ingest a small piece of broken glass that was accidentally mixed into their salad.
- Allergic Reactions: Restaurants may inadvertently expose patrons to allergens if they fail to disclose ingredients or cross-contaminate dishes. For example, a customer with a severe peanut allergy might experience an anaphylactic reaction after consuming a dish unknowingly contaminated with peanut residue.
A cook and a customer suffered serious burns at a Japanese restaurant in Ocala, Florida.
The cook was preparing a meal at a tableside grill when the fire made its way from the grill toward a bottle the cook held in his hand. The bottle exploded and the cook’s shirt caught fire.
A patron removed the cook’s shirt while another patron put out the flames with a fire extinguisher.
The cook suffered first, second, and third-degree burns. A woman sitting at a nearby table suffered burns on her neck and hair.
Can a restaurant owner be held liable when a patron is injured?
Restaurant owners and operators have a legal duty to protect patrons from dangerous conditions that exist within their restaurants. Owners and operators can protect patrons by making dangerous conditions safe or warning patrons about dangerous conditions.
If you want to hold a restaurant owner liable for an injury you suffered inside their restaurant, you typically need to prove that:
- You were injured by a dangerous condition, and
- The restaurant owner or an employee was aware of the dangerous condition, the owner or an employee created the dangerous condition, or the owner or an employee of the restaurant should have discovered the dangerous condition before you were injured.
For example, if you were injured because you slipped on a spilled drink, you’ll need to establish that someone at the restaurant was aware of the spilled drink or the drink had been on the floor for so long that someone should have discovered it. To this end, your lawyer might request security camera footage and depose other patrons that were in the restaurant at the time of the slip.
William Kidd slipped and fell as he was leaving the bathroom of an El Pollo Loco restaurant in Bakersfield, California.
William allegedly suffered a tear of the quadricep tendon of his right knee and a traumatic brain injury as a result of the fall.
William filed a personal injury lawsuit against the El Pollo Loco restaurant. The lawsuit alleged that the restaurant cooks were cleaning the grills, which resulted in the slippery substance on the floor. The lawsuit further alleged that the grills take up to three hours to clean, but because the restaurant only scheduled workers one hour after closing, the workers were forced to start cleaning while the restaurant still had customers present.
After a short trial, a California jury found that the restaurant was negligent. It awarded William more than $16 million in damages.
Restaurants can also be held liable for negligent security. Negligent security is a cause of action that can be filed as a result of a criminal act that occurs on commercial property. For example, if a patron is attacked by another patron, they might sue the restaurant for negligent security.
All states have recognized that restaurant owners owe a duty to provide their customers with reasonable protection from foreseeable criminal activity.
What constitutes reasonable protection depends on the specific circumstances of the case. Common examples include:
- Security guards
- Security cameras
- Adequate lighting
There are 3 main tests to establish foreseeability in negligent security actions:
- The imminent harm test. In states that apply the imminent harm test, business owners who discover that a customer is in peril must warn the customer or call the police. This means the business owner has no duty to foresee some future harm but must only react to an immediate harm.
- The prior criminal incidents test. In states that apply the prior criminal incidents test, crimes against customers are foreseeable only if the plaintiff can establish that the owner knew or should have known of prior similar crimes on the premises.
- The totality of the circumstances test. In states that apply the totality of the circumstances test, the plaintiff can introduce any evidence of foreseeability, such as prior security measures, the character of the neighborhood, and all prior crimes near the premises. The court considers all these factors to determine whether the crime should have been foreseeable.
Finally, restaurants can be held liable under dram shop laws. Dram shop laws hold establishments that sell alcohol responsible for serving intoxicated patrons who later cause an accident.
Every state’s dram shop laws are different. In most cases, the establishment will only be held liable if three conditions are met:
- The establishment sold alcohol to a patron who was “apparently under the influence” or under the legal drinking age,
- The patron consumed the alcohol sold by the establishment, and
- The consumption of alcohol was the cause of the injury, death, or property damage.
Steps to take after suffering an injury in a restaurant
If you suffer an injury in a restaurant and believe you may have a legal claim against the establishment, taking the following steps may help support your lawsuit:
- Report the incident: Inform the restaurant staff, including the manager or owner, of your injury immediately. Rightly or wrongly, insurance companies and jurors are suspicious of claimants who leave the scene of an accident without reporting the accident.
- Document the scene: Take photographs or videos of the area where the injury occurred, as well as any contributing factors (e.g., wet floor without a warning sign, broken glass, etc.). This visual evidence can help establish the hazardous condition that caused the injury.
- Collect witness information: If there are any witnesses to the incident, obtain their names and contact information. Witnesses can be notoriously difficult to track down, so it’s a good idea to obtain two types of contact information (for example, their telephone number and email address).
- Seek medical attention: Promptly seek medical treatment for the injury, even if it appears to be minor. Medical records will serve as documentation of the injury's extent and any necessary treatments, which may be critical in proving damages.
- Preserve evidence: Keep any physical evidence related to the injury, such as a foreign object you may have ingested, contaminated food, or clothing with burn marks or stains.
- Refrain from making statements: Avoid discussing the details of the incident or injury with restaurant staff or on social media platforms, as these statements could potentially be used against the injured party in a lawsuit.
- Contact an attorney: As soon as possible, consult with a personal injury attorney experienced in handling restaurant liability cases. The attorney can offer legal advice, evaluate the merits of the case, and guide the injured party through the necessary steps to pursue a lawsuit.
Related read: Foodborne Illness from Exotic Foods: Who’s Liable?