How Restaurants Should Approach a Food Poisoning Lawsuit

by Lexie Schlegel4 Min Read

One of your customers claims her hot date turned into a nightmare when she got a case of food poisoning at your restaurant. She's informed you that she will be pursuing legal action. How do you as a restaurant owner respond? Continue reading for advice on how to handle a potential food poisoning lawsuit against your establishment.

Step One: Do Not Panic

The last thing you should do if approached about a food poisoning lawsuit is panic. It's easy to do so, because nobody wants the reputation of their business to be marred by something as potentially negative as a lawsuit.

However, a lawsuit need not be the death of your business. Keep in mind that restaurants such as Chipotle have faced food poisoning cases. Your business can recover from any potential lawsuit with a solid of a customer base. So take a deep breath, and then carefully and rationally proceed to the next step.

Step Two: Contact Legal Representation

As a business owner, you should have already established a relationship with a reputable law firm. After all, there are many law firms experienced in helping customers win food poisoning cases, so you want to be sure you have equally strong legal representation. Reach out to an attorney immediately after being informed of an incident. Ideally, you'll want to find an attorney who is known for providing excellent defense in civil cases. 

At the meeting, be sure to bring copies of all relevant documentation with you. If you're not certain of the importance of a particular document, include it anyway. Examples of documentation you may have are receipts, photographs, shift schedules showing who was working, food inspector reports, etc. Going forward, you will need to establish a procedure for preserving any and all documentation or photographs related to the case.

Step Three: Reconsider All Communications

Once you've secured an attorney to represent you, all future communication should remain strictly between your attorney and the plaintiff's attorney.

It can be tempting, especially if you are a smaller, family-owned establishment, to reach out to the customer directly to try to make things right. Whatever you do, resist this temptation. . To avoid damaging your case with inadvertently damaging statements, let your law firm do its job while you focus solely on doing yours — running your restaurant.

Step Four: Contact Your Insurance Provider

It goes without saying that you should carry liability insurance on your business, and in many states, carrying said insurance is a prerequisite to obtaining a business license. Now is the time to reach out to them about a pending claim.

Your insurance agent will take down all the information about your case just as your attorney did. If possible, it is advisable to have your attorney present when you speak with your insurance carrier. Your attorney will work  closely with your insurance company when it comes to settling the claim, if necessary.

Step Five: Decide on Your Case Strategy 

While many defendants follow the advice of their attorney verbatim, it is important to remember that this is your business and you ultimately will need to live with the consequences of the outcome of your case. Therefore, getting and staying involved and working directly with your attorney on case strategy is paramount.

The best strategy is often to settle the case outside of court, particularly if legal fees are adding up rapidly. If there is a nonmonetary way to resolve the issue — for example, an apology or a certificate for a free meal — this is obviously superior to dragging matters out in court.

If your attorney does decide to proceed to court, be sure to follow their instruction. They will work with you on what to expect on cross-examination and on how to respond to certain types of questions.

Step Six: Be Honest, Professional and Sincere 

Your case proceeded all the way to court. No doubt, by this point, you are ready to have this matter resolved and behind you. However, it is critical from a public relations standpoint that you not allow your frustration to show. The image you want to project to the public and to court officials is one of openness, honesty and a desire for the truth.

If questioned by reporters and permitted to speak by your attorney, keep your tone positive at all times. Never bash the plaintiff. Instead, offer your sincere wishes for a speedy recovery if they have not recovered fully already. Express confidence in the cleanliness and healthfulness of your establishment. Projecting a confident, caring tone can go far in helping you to rebuild positive business relationships with your community.  

Step Seven: Reassess Moving Forward

Once your case has been settled either in or out of court, it is time to sit back and reflect on how you can improve things moving forward.

If the incident stemmed from employee negligence, now is the time to update your employee manual to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Plan a meeting with all staff and ensure all understand the procedures to be followed.

If the incident stemmed from improper maintenance of equipment, make sure you schedule appointments with repair people immediately to repair or replace the faulty equipment. If an inspection was made, schedule a follow-up food inspection so you can show a clean bill of health.

Facing a food poisoning lawsuit may seem like the end of the world if you're a restaurant owner. However, by proceeding with dignity and respect, you can come out on top and continue to thrive in your business.

Lexie Schlegel

@LexieSchleg | Website

Lexie Schlegel is a PR Specialist at WebpageFX. She graduated from Lycoming College and enjoys writing in her free time.

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