Tread carefully if you run a restaurant that delivers. Late last month, a Texas jury awarded $32 million to the family of a couple involved in a deadly accident involving a Domino’s pizza delivery driver. The case was a tragedy all around, but illustrates how far a restaurant’s liability can extend when it provides meal delivery services to customers.
The accident occurred in August, 2012, in Beaumont, TX. It resulted in the death of one passenger, 65-year-old Ruth Christopher, and permanent traumatic brain injury to her 70-year-old husband, Devavaram Christopher.
The lawsuit hinged on two factors. One was the condition of the tires on the delivery driver’s vehicle. All were worn; one was bald.
"It was raining, he (the Domino’s driver) had a bad tire, lost control, hydroplaned into the oncoming traffic and slammed into the Christophers’ vehicle," Christopher family attorney Chip Ferguson explains. “Domino’s simply refused to enforce the basic safety rules for the safety of the vehicle, that gets back to the fact that we had a set of tires on this particular delivery vehicle that by everybody's admission were unsafe, defective and dangerous.”
“We learned that Domino’s has a very broad, undefined corporate policy that delivery drivers' vehicles should be inspected,” says Ferguson. "However, Domino’s does not enforce this policy with their franchises, and that led to the accident that took the life,” he adds.
The second factor was that the Domino’s driver was cited for speeding. The company ditched its 30-minute-or-it’s-free guarantee long ago, but Ferguson said Domino’s still has an internal 30-minute delivery rule.
“We also learned that Domino's enforces a tragically unsafe delivery method by providing bonuses and other incentives for fast delivery," he says.
Domino’s isn’t buying these arguments. In a post-verdict statement to the media, Domino’s v.p. of communications Tim McIntyre said "First, our hearts go out to all involved in this tragedy. This was a terrible accident. What’s difficult to comprehend is the idea that a corporation is responsible for whether an independent franchise employee is driving on bald tires. The employee in question did not work for us; he worked for an established independent franchise operation. Franchisors do not control the day-to-day operations of franchisees, especially to that minute level of detail. We are saddened by this tragedy, but do intend to appeal the decision."
So should other operators start checking tire tread depth on their delivery vehicles and read drivers the riot act about slowing down? That’s up to you, and perhaps your liability insurance carrier.
But be aware that the rise of online takeout and delivery portals like the now-merged GrubHub and Seamless sites (25,000 restaurants and counting) may make delivery a part of the business more restaurants may be ready to explore. Whether you handle delivery in-house or outsource it to an independent delivery service, this $32 million verdict shows it’s a good idea to be clear about who is responsible for what, when, as your restaurant’s food is being delivered.