Legal Issues Affecting the Hospitality Industry
Those of us who call Florida home know that the Sunshine State is also a top tourist destination. Florida tourism generates millions of dollars in revenue each year and is critical to the state’s restaurateurs, bar owners, and hoteliers. In addition to the operational challenges these business owners face on a daily basis, they must also keep in mind a host of other issues such as risk management for personal injury cases, ancillary services offered on the property, as well as ensuring they have the proper guidelines, procedures, and training in place for employees.
Risk Management for Personal Injury Cases
Personal injury cases affecting those in the hospitality industry include slip and fall cases, negligent security cases, and dram shop actions (cases where a bartender or wait staff serves alcohol to an underage or intoxicated patron who later injures another party as a result of their intoxication). These types of lawsuits can carry substantial exposure and significantly disrupt day-to-day operations.
Hotel and restaurant owners must take measures to address foreseeable risks in order to minimize liability exposure. This is critically important as personal injury or wrongful death cases will include an assessment of what steps, if any, the hotel or restaurant took to mitigate risk to its guests. In the event that a guest suffers injury or death, it is essential that the manager on site gather the senior staff, along with legal counsel, to determine what occurred, how to address the issues, and how to care for the affected guest(s). Further, it is also important that only one person, preferably the hotel or restaurant’s public relations expert, serve as the designated spokesperson for communicating with any press, if necessary.
Ancillary Services Offered on the Property
Waterfront hotel and restaurant owners must also consider issues involving ancillary services that are offered on the property. Some examples include use of the water by guests, as well as water sport activities such as parasailing, jet skiing, and other related activities. As a preliminary step, these activities should be offered through a vendor rather than directly through the hotel or restaurant. Additionally, hotel and restaurant owners should ensure there are signs on the property making it clear that these services are being offered by a third party, not the hotel or restaurant, and that guests engage in these activities at their own risk.
Despite such disclaimers, however, it is not uncommon for the hotel or restaurant to be named as a defendant in the event a guest suffers injury or death while involved in one of the aforementioned activities. For that reason, in addition to ensuring there is proper and conspicuous signage on the property, it is essential that waterfront hotel and restaurant owners also have a detailed indemnity agreement in place with vendors who may be offering these types activities.
Guidelines, Procedures, and Training for Employees
Florida’s hotel and restaurant owners often deal with a fair amount of turnover among employees due to the ebbs and flows in tourism. As a first step, it is essential that hoteliers and restaurateurs properly screen and train new hires so as to limit potential liability exposure. Also, in the event that a hotel or restaurant must hire seasonal employees, it will want to ensure that the expectations and conditions, if any, are clearly set forth at the outset of the new hire’s employment.
In addition to initial and ongoing training for employees, it is a “best practice” for hotels and restaurants to have established written guidelines and procedures, generally in the form of an employee handbook. Further, it is highly recommended that the handbook be available in both English and Spanish as many employees in the hospitality industry possess limited English language skills. Having an employee handbook in a language that employees understand will ensure there is a definitive reference point in the event an incident occurs. Additionally, it is advisable that hotels and restaurants have an attorney or law firm who serves as outside general counsel to provide guidance on risk management, compliance, and employment issues, as needed.
Although there is no way to protect hoteliers, bar owners, and restaurateurs from every possible liability, understanding (and avoiding) the most common pitfalls will allow those in the hospitality industry to focus on running their business rather than dealing with costly and time-consuming litigation.
Rick Duarte is the owner of The Duarte Firm, P.A., where he focuses his practice on business law. He received his law degree from the Emory University School of Law and has been named a “Rising Star” in Business Litigation by Florida Super Lawyers for 2016 – 2018. Rick also serves as outside general counsel to emerging and medium-sized businesses, guiding clients through corporate governance, risk management issues, and strategic decisions where business and law intersect.