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May 18, 2020

How Covid19 Affects Your Liability as a Restaurant Owner

As a restaurant owner, you probably cannot wait until your restaurant dining room reopens again. Everyone wants to get back to normal. As the current covid19 crisis continues, we are getting a clearer picture of the new normal and a better view of the liabilities that a restaurant owner faces when it comes to the disease. This article will describe the affects covid19 has on liabilities to both your customers and your employees. 

Liabilities to Customers

In California, restaurant owners owe a higher duty of care towards the customer. This generally means that the restaurant must provide safe conditions for their patrons to eat and drink, or provide a clear warning if they cannot keep that area safe. An example of this is spills. If a spill cannot be cleaned up right away, then a “wet floor” sign should be displayed to warn customers that the floor might be slippery. While this might not eliminate your liability 100%, this would let you share in the liability with the customer – after all, the customer will also be partly at fault for ignoring or not noticing the “wet floor” sign. 

As of early May, there has not been any updates to the duty of care towards customers in response to the covid19 pandemic. However, once restaurants start reopening, we might see newer regulations from the CDC and state and local government put in place. For example, regulations could mandate social distancing in the dining room by placing all tables at least 10 feet apart and limiting the capacity by half. Failure to follow these types of regulations will expose you to fines and other sanctions with your local authority, and if a customer or employee can prove that they were exposed to covid19 at your restaurant, it can also open you up to lawsuits. So following any current or upcoming guidelines from the CDC and local authorities will be important in protecting your restaurant and reducing your liability. 

Liabilities to Employees

First and foremost, if one of your employees have contracted covid19 and brought it to work, you should file a workers’ compensation claim. WC claims will cover typically cover medical expenses, lost time, and even death benefits. If multiple employees are involved though, WC could consider this a catastrophic loss, kicking in full policy limits. All WC claims will first be investigated before a claim is paid out. 

California, along with the federal government, has instituted supplemental sick leave provisions for the pandemic. Federal laws apply to restaurants or entities with fewer than 500 employees and CA state law applies to restaurants with 500 or more employees. Supplemental sick leave is paid sick leave on top of any paid leave that’s already available to the worker. Supplemental paid sick leave is also paid out immediately – employers cannot force their employees to use up other forms of leave before paying out supplemental paid leave.  

Finally, a common question employers have is can they be sued by their employees if they contract covid19 at their workplace. The question is, it depends. Usually, accepting a workers compensation payout will waive the employee’s right to sue. Furthermore, the employee has to prove that they contracted the virus at their workplace, which is going to be hard if they have been out to other places. Assuming that they can, there are steps you can take to reduce your liability. The most helpful thing you can do is to take proper precautions to help reduce spread. These include:

  1. Prioritizing regular hygiene – post signs in common areas reminding employees to wash their hands and cover their mouths while sneezing and coughing. Provide tissues and trash cans for those tissues. Educate employees on how they can reduce spread
  2. Allow sick employees to stay home – do not force sick employees to come into work. If an employee develops symptoms at work, send them straight to their doctor before sending them home. Require a doctor’s note before allowing any previously sick employee to return to work. 
  3.  Encouraging customers to remain 6 feet apart, or separate tables in the dining room or reduce capacity after dining rooms are allowed to be opened. 
  4. Discourage handshaking
  5. Routine cleaning and disinfecting – Set a schedule to routine clean and disinfect high-contact surfaces and bathrooms. 

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Alex Chen


Alex Chen is an attorney based in Los Angeles specializing in nonprofit and for-profit business startups. He graduated from UCLA in 2010 and earned his J.D. from Loyola Law School in 2014. He was admitted to the California State Bar in 2015. He previously worked in immigration law in private practice and for a public interest organization, helping clients with both visas and green card applications. He has been working at Law Office of Alex Chen since 2017 to help philanthropists fulfill their charitable goals and entrepreneurs realize their dreams of owning their own business.

Wilson Muh

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