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Restaurant Owners: Do You Have A Duty to Help a Sick Customer?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Quick, a customer is choking on his couscous. Call 911! Or not?

If a customer chokes, gets sick, injured, or has a medical emergency at your business, do you have a duty to help them? Is it enough to call 911? Do you have to take extraordinary measures to save them? Should you train your employees in CPR or the Heimlich? Or, can you sit idly by without fear of criminal or civil liability?

Here is what you need to know about a restaurant's duty to help:

In General: No Duty to Protect

State laws, generally, do not impose a duty on bystanders to aid another person in distress.

For example, in the case of Kitty Genovese, witnesses watched as she was stabbed, raped and murdered. Of the thirty or so witness, only one finally called the police. The nation was shocked to discover that witnesses who did nothing to help Kitty or call the police were not criminally or civilly liable for failing to help her.

You only have a duty to help somebody in certain situations, including when you created the peril, when you started to rescue, or you have a special relationship with the person in need of help.

Restaurant-Customer Duty

So, does this mean you don't have a duty to help a restaurant customer who is choking or just had a heart attack?

Not necessarily. In Delgado v. Trax Bar & Grill, the California Supreme Court wrote, "It long has been recognized that restaurant proprietors have a special-relationship-based duty to undertake relatively simple measures such as providing 'assistance [to] their customers who become ill or need medical attention and that they are liable if they fail to act.'"

In another California case, Breaux v. Gino's, Inc., a customer choked while eating at a restaurant. The assistant manager at the restaurant promptly called 911, but he did not attempt to give first aid to the customer. The customer died. The court found that the restaurant was not liable for wrongful death because it had already fulfilled its duty to help by calling 911.

So, while most businesses do not need to take on the role of paramedics and doctors, you should make it a policy to, at a minimum, call the police or 911 to aid your customers.

If you are sued by an injured customer for failure to help, an experienced business attorney will be able to help.

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