Restaurants are private facilities and, as such, have the right, and ability, to enforce any policy they wish with regard to alcohol. This means that restaurants absolutely have the right to make it a policy not to serve alcohol to pregnant women. Unfortunately, this does not negate a pregnant woman’s rights to fair and equal service, and failure to serve a woman when she wishes to order drinks can lead to lawsuits.
Additionally, local ordinances with respect to a pregnant woman’s right to order, and be served, alcohol vary from city to city. A server should fully understand the details of local Duty of Care laws before serving a pregnant woman any beverage containing alcohol, to ensure that service is compliant with local legislation.
Are restaurants liable for damages if a pregnant woman drinks there?
A restaurant is potentially liable if it serves alcohol to a pregnant woman, and she or her infant suffers as a result. An example would be if a pregnant woman came into a restaurant and went on a drinking binge, and then delivered an infant with fetal alcohol syndrome. Under certain circumstances, she could, in fact, sue the restaurant for damages.
For the woman to have grounds for a successful suit, she would have to argue that she was unaware of the potential hazards that alcohol posed to her baby, and her pregnancy. She would thus need to be able to prove that the restaurant did not warn her of the risk the drink posed to her baby before serving her the drink.
In an attempt to both decrease the number of cases of fetal alcohol syndrome and to ensure that these kinds of lawsuits do not occur, most states require every establishment that serves or sells alcohol to post a sign that contains the Surgeon General’s official warning concerning pregnant women and the risk of alcohol use during pregnancy.
It is recommended that restaurants not only post this warning sign near their entrances, but also on the regular dining menu and the alcohol service menu. These signs are often also posted in the ladies’ restroom. Restaurants may also wish to have servers issue this warning verbally to women ordering alcohol.
If a restaurant has a local refuse-to-serve policy, how can it avoid lawsuits?
Restaurants should be aware that, if they choose to enforce the policy, they do run some risk of lawsuit. Ultimately, these policies are discriminatory. They limit a woman’s right to drink based on both her gender and her medical condition. This is a violation of the Civil Liberties Act and, despite the fact that she is pregnant and the fact that alcohol is known to cause fetal complications, the woman’s right to make choices about her body is hers alone.
A woman can sue any restaurant that refuses to serve her alcohol because of her pregnancy, if she feels discriminated against. However, the chance of suit can be minimized if the restaurant clearly posts its local policy. This policy is often attached to any and all Surgeon General warning statements that are posted in the restaurant, including those in entryways and on menus, bar lists, and others.
Also, training waiters to politely state that the restaurant has a blanket policy against serving pregnant women for liability reasons, rather than simply refusing to serve the drink, can reduce the risk of a lawsuit. It is essential that the situation be handled with a certain delicacy, so the woman is not embarrassed and does not feel ostracized by the refusal.
What are Duty of Care laws and do they apply to pregnant women?
Duty of Care laws are legal obligations to act responsibly and with care when performing acts that could reasonably cause harm to others. When serving alcohol, it is considered negligent to serve alcohol if it is reasonable to assume that service will cause harm to others.
For example, if a customer is already drunk, it is reasonable to refuse her the right to service because she is already inebriated. It is also the server’s responsibility to ensure that she doesn’t drink and drive; arranging for a taxi or other car service home if the customer is clearly incapable of driving safely.
This law only applies to pregnant women who have already had enough to drink to argue that they are intoxicated, but it does give restaurants the ability to refuse to serve them alcohol beyond the first or second glass.
If a pregnant woman drinks at a restaurant, and then drives home and is in an accident on the way home, the restaurant could also be found liable for letting her drive. The restaurant is then responsible for, not only the woman and child, but also any property that was damaged and people that were injured as a result of the woman’s accident.
As was mentioned previously, the reason that further drinks are being refused should be made clear to the woman in question. The server should state that, under the Duty of Care law, it is the restaurant’s responsibility to ensure that guests drink responsibly, and because the restaurant could be held liable, no further drinks should be consumed.