Restaurant Liability: The Best Defense Is Following The Rules – Your Rules

It has been said that people will “come for the food, and return for the service,” and behind every restaurant’s recipes and welcoming smiles are the policies and procedures that ensure smooth operations from open to close. Policies and procedures come in many forms, from detailed written handbooks issued by national chain restaurants to verbal standard operating procedures in place at mom-and-pop shops.

Regardless of the form, having policies and procedures in place is important to streamline food handling, preparation and service, as well as customer service guidelines. Policies should address preventative safety measures, as well as proper steps for responding to guest complaints or incidents that may arise. While customer service hinges on how employees handle complaints, liability will often hinge on whether or not employees followed internal policies. Not all accidents can be avoided, but when faced with a complaint such as the occurrence of a slip and fall incident, or an alleged food-borne illness, a restaurant’s adherence to policies and procedures will be closely examined when determining liability exposure.

When claims are brought against restaurants, the claimant is often looking for some form of compensation. The claim could go so far as to turn into a time-consuming, costly lawsuit. Oftentimes, the most difficult matters to defend are those in which a plaintiff can point to company-specific policies which were not followed. Having to try and explain to a jury why employees ignored or failed to adhere to company policies can prove to make any defense difficult. This all boils down to the importance of one of the very first lessons we all learned – follow the rules!

While employees are likely trained on policies when they begin employment, re-education of policies should become a pivotal part of regular operations. Here are some examples:

  • Brief safety meetings can be held prior to opening or at a shift-change, reminding employees of crucial safety issues. Simple safety tips such as reminders regarding food handling procedures, packaging information for take-out items and the use of warning signs in the event of a spill, can be quickly and easily addressed. After employees are reminded, supervisors should be tasked with ensuring the policies are being followed.
  • If employees are mopping floors during business hours and the placement of “wet floor” caution signs are a part of the process, managers should make sure signs are placed in the appropriate areas at the designated times in accordance with the facility’s policies and procedures.
  • If restrooms are to be cleaned and inspected throughout the day, managers should make sure employees are following the proper schedule. Because there are no cameras in restrooms, and often no witnesses to incidents that occur in this location, it is crucial that employees can point specifically to when the restrooms were last cleaned or inspected before an incident. Because employees typically share the use of patron restrooms, they are often in a position to be able to comment about the state of restrooms throughout their shifts, which can also help connect the dots between policies and compliance.
  • As to food service, if policies mandate specific plating or take-out packaging procedures based on the nature or temperature of the food item, supervisory kitchen staff should be reviewing food orders prior to service.

If a claim is made against your restaurant, being able to provide basic information to a claims representative or defense attorney can help keep you out of the courtroom or prevent you from having to pay a costly settlement. Restaurant management should be prepared to provide all documentation relevant to the situation that occurred such as: the names of those employees working on the date of the incident; the name(s) of any managers or supervisors on duty at the time of the incident; a list of the dates of safety meetings held and topics discussed; the training programs in place at your restaurant; and, if applicable, confirmation that your employees completed the required training programs. Further, because claims may be filed months or years later, having any involved employees or witnesses draft statements reflecting adherence to relevant policies would be beneficial.

In instances where the restaurant is unaware that an incident occurred, or where there are no known witnesses, gathering information may not be as simple. Regardless of when you learn of a claim, having a manager take immediate actions to gather relevant information about policies and procedures, and more importantly, compliance with those policies, will prove to be crucial in defending against the claim. And, while it is impossible to prevent all accidents and injuries from occurring, many of the injuries that typically occur at restaurants can be avoided when employees are trained on the rules, and held accountable in following them.