(This article originally appeared in The Guardian)
Should a small business be responsible for their customers’ behavior? That’s the question the owners of La Fogata Mexican Grill wrestled with this summer. The Texas-based restaurant was ordered by a court to pay $5.5m to a customer after he filed a civil lawsuit saying he was given too much alcohol.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the incident occurred in 2019 when Daniel Rawls visited La Fogata and knocked back one too many drinks. Rawls got into an altercation with another drunk customer in the restaurant’s parking lot and sustained a head injury.
Rawls sued the restaurant, claiming that the bartender on duty at the time not only allowed him and his sparring partner to drink too much, but also failed to call an ambulance after Rawls was injured. As a result, Rawls — who, according to the report, has a “history of excessive drinking,” has twice spent time in jail for public intoxication and was recently arrested for drunk-driving — said he sustained a “serious and debilitating head injury” partly caused by the “uneven parking lot” at the restaurant.
The owner of the restaurant refused to respond to the lawsuit. Now Rawls has $5.5m.
From all the reports I’ve read, it appears Rawls has problems with alcohol, and it’s hard for me to believe that the restaurant owner or the bartender couldn’t recognize that. So why wasn’t Rawls stopped? The court found that La Fogata’s owner simply didn’t provide the necessary training so the bartenders could see the signs of excessive drunkenness and stopped serving the customer.
Should the customer have been cut off sooner for safety reasons? Were the restaurant owner and bartender ignoring the obvious signs of intoxication in order to profit from selling a few more drinks? For many restaurant owners, struggling to recover their financial footing after the pandemic year, every customer counts, and every dollar counts. So yeah, that’s possible. And if that’s the case there’s no excuse. Besides injuring himself, Rawls could have injured someone else.
But of equal concern is that, even in the midst of mask mandates, vaccine requirements, labor shortages and rising food costs, business owners may now have to babysit adults. And then out shell out millions if someone misbehaves.
“Accountability doesn’t exist any more,” complains Dante on Barstool Sports. “Everything bad that happens has to be somebody else’s fault. It’s never the result of poor decisions or actions. Rawls wasn’t at fault for [not handling] his liquor and [being] responsible for himself, even though he is an adult. It was the bartender’s fault for pouring the drinks. Actually, it was the bartender’s fault, and the manager who trained him. It was all of their faults. Not Daniel Rawls’s.”
This story is a strong reminder to any small business that chooses to let customers behave in a potentially unsafe way on their premises. If injury occurs, regardless of how irresponsible the customer is, those business owners could be held liable. Yes, you are responsible for your customers’ behavior. In the case of the Fogata Mexican Grill, this was a $5.5m lesson that I’m sure the owner will never forget.