While finger parts in foods always make the news headlines, it's really the mundane claims that have the industry choking on a menu of general liability suits.
A two-and-a-half-year general liability claim study conducted by the Restaurant Insurance Corp. of full-service, fine-dining and family-style (but not fast food) restaurants involving a total of 2,332 claims by patrons found that 908 of those claims involved slips, trips and falls, and another 765 involved biting into or swallowing foreign objects. The average cost of a claim involving biting into or swallowing a foreign object came to $1,800, according to the study.
The average cost of a claim involving a slip, trip or fall came to $3,550. Slips, trips and falls are "by far the primary cause of liability claims in the industry," says Dan Knise, executive vice president of the Restaurant Insurance Corp.
The reason, says Michael Modlin, product director, commercial insurance, for Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., is because even if spills are cleaned up quickly, they can still lead to accidents as patrons slip on the water between the time the employee has mopped up the spill and located the sign warning them of wet floors.
"We receive numerous claims of this nature, where the accident occurred between the time the spill was cleaned up and the sign was put up," says Modlin.
There are at least three ways for the restaurant industry to easily combat general liability claims stemming from slips, trips and falls.
-Flooring Strategies. While Wendy's International Inc. has spent a lot of time creating a favorable tile specification for its kitchen areas and other places employees work, it has done the same for guest areas. Wood flooring, which is gaining popularity in restaurants, can be tricky and requires special coatings to make them less slippery, says Knise. The trick is to find the proper coatings to increase friction coefficients. "Style and ambience are obviously very important for the public portion of the restaurant," says Joe Kovalcik, vice president of risk management for Wendy's International. Wendy's has been able to identify tiles that have the style and ambience it wants, and asked the manufacturer to increase the tiles' friction coefficient.
-Permanent signage. Slips, trips and falls can be particularly serious problems for the elderly, says Kovalcik. "This is true not only in terms of higher frequencies, but also in terms of severity." Wendy's uses "Watch Your Step" signage, floor mats and railings around steps. It also makes sure there is contrast around steps so they are very visible and that outside curbs are painted.
-Cleanups. "Restaurants should have inclement weather policies," says Knise. Restaurants should have a policy of putting down nonskid mats before patrons begin tracking slush and water into the restaurant. "In many cases, restaurants don't even bother putting down mats until the first person falls," he says.
Ongoing training is also important, according to Fireman's Fund's Modlin. One key to training is if a patron spills a drink, an employee should stand by it to warn people until someone else returns to clean it up and set up the sign.
To prevent outdoor slips, trips and falls, Modlin recommends hiring reputable contractors to handle snow removal as well as pothole and concrete repair. "Make sure they are professionals, and make sure you get a signed 'hold harmless' agreement," he says.
July 1, 2005
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