2006: Fort Wayne, Indiana. A fast food restaurant is sued for negligence by a woman who was shot in an argument with another customer as they waited to be served.
The attacker was jailed for 40 years for attempted murder, but a court in Indiana then ruled that the customer had the right to sue the Taco Bell restaurant where the shooting took place, on the grounds that "proprietors owe a duty to their business invitees to use reasonable care to protect them from injury caused by other patrons and guests."
Hopefully the restaurant's public liability insurance paid for the lawyers to fight the case on its behalf, and cover any damages. But while it is unlikely that a British restaurant would find itself with the same nightmare, the court ruling underlines a principle that is just as important in the UK as the USA. Business owners, including restaurateurs, have to be proactive in protecting their customers, and they must be covered by the right restaurant insurance to protect themselves.
Protect your business with the right insurance
The restaurant insurance policy normally includes as a minimum, public liability insurance and employer's liability insurance, but restaurant owners may also want to cover stock, equipment and cash on the premises. If you own the premises, it is possible to incorporate buildings and contents insurance into the same policy.
Train staff to avoid a crisis
Staff training is, of course, a crucial part of any business's efforts to reduce the chances of harm to its customers. So too, is having the right health and safety procedures in place. Fortunately for restaurant owners there are plenty of sources of help and advice around, from local authorities to government agencies.
Pauline Turvey, Head of Commercial Environmental Health at the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, suggests that the local authority website should be the first call for any restaurateur looking for advice and training in areas such as hygiene, food safety management, allergies, traceability and other issues.
Environmental health officers will come along to any restaurant and advise on kitchen and restaurant layouts, food safety regimes and so on, she says. Richmond, like many other local authorities, offers Food Safety in Catering training courses which can be taken on site. Visit their website for further details.
Your reputation will precede you - food safety is king
The borough, along with many others, also takes part in a scheme called "Scores on the Doors", where the results of environmental health officers' inspections of restaurant premises are posted up on the web. Awards can range from five stars: "excellent: very high standards of food safety management", to no stars: "very poor: little or no appreciation of food safety. Major effort required".
The idea is to give customers confidence, as well as keep restaurants on their toes. Also, if anything does go wrong, a series of good "Scores on the Doors" results will help show that a restaurant has been doing all it can to keep its customers safe from food poisoning and other potential risks.
Local authority websites will also point restaurants in the direction of the Food Safety Agency (FSA) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The FSA has a mass of information for restaurateurs on its website, including advice for people looking to start up a restaurant and a complete food safety management pack. The pack contains information on everything from staff training, hygiene, safe food storage, cooking safety and allergies to stock control, record keeping and reducing food wastage.
Watch out for allergies
Food allergies are an increasing concern for restaurateurs and caterers, with an increase in instances of, for example, someone becoming seriously ill or dying in a restaurant because they went into anaphylactic shock after eating a lemon cheesecake that was made with peanuts in the base.
The Anaphylaxis Campaign has a website with advice for restaurateurs about food allergies, and a list of the commonest foods that can cause allergic reactions, from prawns and nuts to celery, fish and milk. It also gives the alarming news that in the UK about ten people die every year from an allergic reaction to food and many more end up in hospital, and that "in most cases, the food that causes the reaction is from a restaurant or takeaway".
The HSE website has a special section devoted to health and safety in the catering and hospitality industries, with a checklist for restaurant staff to help ensure customer safety. Advice includes:
- Be aware that customers (particularly children) may move suddenly or move their chair back just as their meal is being served.
- If space is tight when serving, ask the customer politely if they can move to one side.
- If silver-serving, make sure hot surfaces do not touch customers.
- Watch out for handbags, briefcases and coats lying on the floor.
- Know what action to take if dealing with any customer who is drunk or aggressive.
Incorporating all the available advice into running a restaurant safely does not, of course, remove the need to have liability insurance in place. But it does mean that you're less likely to have to call on the insurance company for a claim. If a restaurateur can show all the safety measures that have been taken when they apply for a restaurant insurance quote, they could even find they get their insurance premiums at a cheaper price...