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How to Improve Guest Safety With Sound Parking Lot Security Procedures

Addressing problems that arise inside the restaurant is often the focus of restaurant management. From sanitary cooking conditions and unruly customers to table linens and menu planning, these issues are the ones that consume most of a restaurant manager's time. But are restaurants overlooking a potential hotbed of problems in their parking lots and the surrounding areas? 

We have all been there at one time or another -- in a poorly lighted parking lot, late at night, alone, and exposed to the unknown. Parking lots, by their very nature, are an ideal place for crime. Restaurant owners need to know that they can be held liable for what takes place in their parking lots and other areas accessible by customers outside the restaurant, causing tremendous financial and legal problems for them if not maintained in a safe and secure manner. This article will address measures you should take to increase parking lot safety and security at your restaurant in hopes of ensuring the safety of your customers and employees and their property, protecting business, and avoiding a potentially devastating lawsuit. 

A Restaurant's Obligations

Premises liability law is the body of law that makes the person who possesses land or premises responsible for certain injuries suffered by persons on their premises. In the context of premises liability for restaurant parking lots, a restaurant owner "possesses" the parking lot when the owner is in occupation of the land with intent to control it. If you own and use a parking lot adjacent to your restaurant, you most likely fall into this category. 

Under the premises liability law of most jurisdictions, it is necessary to determine if the third party is an "invitee," a "licensee" or a "trespasser." The standard of care toward these third parties can vary significantly depending upon how the third party is classified. The most likely third party for restaurant owners and managers is the "invitee." An invitee is a person who is invited, either expressly or implicitly, to enter or remain on the premises for the commercial benefit of the possessor of the premises, or for a purpose directly or indirectly connected with business dealings with the possessor. A restaurant customer in a restaurant parking lot is often the perfect example of an invitee. 

Restaurant owners and managers owe the highest duty of care to customer invitees, both inside the restaurants and in the parking lots. Typically, a restaurant has a duty to use ordinary care to warn or otherwise protect customers from risks of harm from a condition on their premises if the risk of harm is unreasonable; the restaurant knows or in the exercise of ordinary care should know of the condition; and the restaurant should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to its customers. 

In addition to this use of care, many state and/or local laws may also require restaurants to put certain safety and security measures into place. The failure to abide by these laws can result in heavy fines, serious accidents, and damaging evidence if ever faced with a lawsuit. Make sure you do your research to determine what is legally required in your state and local jurisdiction. Restaurant owners should speak with other local restaurant owners, attorneys or the chamber of commerce to ensure that they at all times comply with the requirements of the local laws and ordinances. A few simple and cost-effective steps can often help to ensure that customers feel safe in the parking lot and keep the restaurant out of a damaging spotlight.

Continuously Assess the Situation

An almost endless number of variables can play into the safety and security of a restaurant parking lot. The location of the restaurant, the time(s) of operation, the restaurant clientele, and the size of the parking lot are a few factors that only begin to scratch the surface. In light of all these varying factors, one thing remains the same: Restaurant owners and managers must understand the strengths and weaknesses of their parking lot, as well as their parking lot's surroundings, to provide for the safety and security of their customers and employees. This understanding, and a pro-active stance toward your restaurant parking lot, can change this once-overlooked liability into a true asset for your restaurant. 

One of the most important things that a restaurant can do right away, and with little or no cost, is to simply evaluate the current conditions of the parking lot and other outside areas accessible to customers and employees. After an initial assessment, the managers should routinely walk through the parking lot at various times during the day, which will provide a great deal of information and keep managers aware of when the conditions have changed for the worse or become unsafe. For example, restaurant managers should regularly spend time outside the restaurant to determine the physical condition of the parking lot and surrounding areas, including the lighting at night, the condition of the asphalt, and the working condition of security measures that are already in place. 

In addition, restaurant owners should investigate any incidents that have occurred recently in adjacent parking lots and/or the neighboring areas to protect against those types of events occurring at their restaurant. Another great source of information is your employees. These are often the people who come and go during the early and late hours of the day, and they, as well as their belongings, should certainly be safe. Simply speaking to them about potential parking lot improvements can really help address serious problems quickly, while at the same time letting your employees know that you truly care about their safety and well-being on the job. 

Develop a Plan

Using the information gathered from the initial assessment, recognize areas that need immediate improvement. Restaurants should develop a plan that addresses the needed improvements on both a short-term and long-term spectrum, focusing on the more serious and most dangerous issues first. 

Once the current conditions are brought up to an acceptable standard, managers should be given a checklist of items to routinely evaluate when performing their regular reviews of the parking lots and surrounding areas. The checklists should be in writing and should be required to be performed at least twice a day, which is generally prior to the restaurant opening each day and immediately following the first customer rush of the day. 

The plan should also address emergency situations that may occur after the initial assessment. Emergency situations could include damage from a weather event that scatters dangerous debris about the parking lot. Solutions as to how to handle such emergencies should be put in place. Make sure your employees understand their role in the plans, including both routine parking lot checks and emergency procedures. Conduct training as needed. 

Measures of Security

In evaluating and putting in place the security plans for your restaurant parking lot, you will be forced to make some tough business decisions. To put it frankly, you will have to weigh the costs of the added security measures against the potential benefits to the security of your customers and employees. These decisions will often depend on certain factors such as time, budget, current security conditions, and needed improvements. 

While security does come with a price tag, where parking lot security has been employed, customer use has sometimes increased because customers feel safer. The increase in profits can be used to justify the increased security costs. One thing is for certain: Any added security will be cheaper than the potential lawsuit that could arise from your failure to take action. 

While every restaurant parking lot is different, here are some basic measures that a restaurant should consider when initially assessing the safety and security of its parking lots.

  • Determine whether the parking lot is adequately lighted. A poorly lighted area provides a safe haven for criminals to wait on unsuspecting customers and employees to exit your establishment. It also could increase the chance of a customer falling because of a poorly maintained parking lot surface. Poor lighting of the parking lot is almost always the most damaging fact when a restaurant is faced with a parking lot lawsuit. Checking the light bulbs regularly is an item that should be on the daily checklist for managers. If any street lights that provide a substantial amount of lighting for your parking lot are out, you should immediately notify the proper local authority. Even if the local authority responsible for the streetlights fails to immediately correct the situation, you can show that you acted in good faith and took reasonable steps to ensure it would be corrected.
  • Add security guards to the parking lot if necessary. Depending on the location and financial standing of your restaurant, security guards can be a great addition. This security mechanism has earned a great reputation for preventing criminal activity and comforting late-night diners. Like many other measures, the mere presence of a security guard often causes a criminal to choose a venue other than your restaurant's parking lot for committing his crime. Open lines of communication should always be maintained between you and your security guards to get the most out of this investment.
  • Put an additional pair of eyes on your parking lot through the use of video surveillance. By adding security cameras to your parking lot area, you decrease potential criminal activity and increase the managers' visibility of the parking lot while inside the restaurant. This measure also sends a message to your customers that you care about their safety. If you choose to install security cameras, you should have a plan as to how long tapes will be maintained so as to preserve an accurate record of any events that may unfortunately unfold. While security cameras can often be a significant cost upfront, they are a wise investment that will provide for many years of use. If a restaurant cannot afford to have a security camera that is regularly operational, a restaurant should consider having a non-operational or dummy security camera that is at least present to deter criminals who have no knowledge of whether the camera works.
  • Provide valet and/or an escort to customer and employee cars. If financially feasible and practical, a good way to ensure the safety and security of your customers and employees in the parking lot is to ensure that others are in the parking lot to ensure their safety. For a restaurant that cannot provide a security card, a valet service is often a type of security system that also provides a service for customers and employees. While valet service is often considered a comfort for the customer, think of it also as a viable security measure that allows you to "kill two birds with one stone." The customer only has to make a short walk from the entrance to their car, reducing the likelihood of a significant parking lot incident for your restaurant. Managers should also consider walking out groups of employees who get off work at the same time to their cars to avoid crime.
  • Schedule routine parking lot checks. Why is it that almost all restaurant restrooms have a checklist posted on the back of the bathroom door that is signed, dated and timed, but there aren't ever any check-off sheets for parking lots? From a legal perspective, parking lot safety inspection check-off sheets on file are significant evidence of reasonable care for the safety of customers using the restaurant's parking lots. This is an extremely beneficial tool when faced with a lawsuit, whereas the lack of a checklist invites potentially costly allegations.
  • Have a pair of employees check the parking lot on a regular basis for any suspicious or dangerous conditions. Knowing a problem when you see one can be a very effective preventive safety and security measure. Mysterious cars, strange people, and burnt-out lights are easily observed and can be reported back to management so that they may properly address the situation. Make sure the employees understand that they are simply to report back their observations, and not engage in any potentially dangerous conduct. Have the employees fill out a checklist of their findings and keep these on file.
  • Add security posts/emergency phones. One of the more recent parking lot security measures coming to the forefront is the security post and/or emergency phone. These stations, strategically placed in oftentimes larger parking lots, provide a direct line of communication to responders that can aid in a discomforting situation. The mere presence of these systems often serves as a deterrent to would-be parking lot phantoms.
  • Feed the force. Maintaining a healthy relationship with local police can increase the safety and security of your parking lot. Increased patrols and police presence can often make customers feel safer and ward off a criminal element. Consider telling on-duty officers that they are always welcome for a free cup of coffee at your restaurant or invite the officers in for the occasional free meal. This small investment can have significant security returns. 

Measures of Safety

In addition to the unfortunate number of criminal acts occurring on restaurant parking lots, more and more customers are filing lawsuits against restaurants for their physical injuries and/or property losses resulting from poorly maintained parking lots. You might be surprised at how costly a large pothole or an unpainted curb can be when it abruptly interrupts the unwrapping of an after-dinner mint. To avoid this costly exposure, you must make sure that your parking lot is in good physical condition and in compliance with local and state laws. The aesthetic quality of your parking lot or the number of parking spaces should never take precedence over safety.

In light of the various sizes and layouts for today's restaurant parking lot, here are some basic tips to ensure that your parking lot is safe for your customers and employees and their personal property:

  • Keep parking lots and sidewalks free of clutter. Not only does trash and clutter pose a safety hazard for customers, it also sends the wrong message about your restaurant before the customer even steps foot through your door. Show the customer that you run every aspect of your restaurant in a professional manner by preventing any debris, large or small, from accumulating on your parking lot or sidewalks.
  • Clean up all oil spills. Oil slicks are a leading cause of slip and fall injuries in restaurant parking lots. An absorbent should be kept on site and used to keep the parking lot clean from this slimy sludge.
  • Keep parking lots free of potholes, large cracks or uneven areas. A poorly maintained parking lot surface can be one of the biggest headaches of your restaurant's parking lot. A trip and fall can result in a personal injury lawsuit that will be very costly, time-consuming, and damaging to your restaurant. In addition, a poorly maintained surface can also lead to allegations of vehicle and tire damage. Admittedly, upkeep on parking lot surfaces can often be very expensive, especially for restaurants with a larger parking space. Constant maintenance, however, can help to make sure that your problem never gets out of hand and that you are able to convert what was a significant cost, into a manageable expense.
  • Keep bumper blocks in their proper position and make sure that tie-down rods are secure, not sticking up. These concrete bumpers can often get thrown around a parking lot. The bumpers can block off needed parking spaces and cause serious damage to your customers' vehicles. Routinely check them to make sure they are securely tied down and in good physical condition, posing no serious threat to your most loyal customers' front bumper.
  • Sidewalks should be kept in good repair. The sidewalk of your restaurant parking lot is where your customer's anticipation of your food really begins to grow. It is also where your customers say goodbye to family and friends after a long and memorable meal. Unfortunately, your sidewalks are also one of the places where your patrons are most likely to fall, possibly only to land in the cool leather of a plaintiff attorney's office chair. Don't let this happen to you by failing to keep your sidewalk in good repair. Constantly check for holes and cracks, and make repairs in a timely fashion. Also, keep water off the sidewalks and do not allow large puddles to accumulate.
  • In the winter, keep sidewalks and parking lots free of snow and ice. Depending on the location of your restaurant, in the wintertime your restaurant parking lot may look more like the North Pole. This is an obvious risk to both the customer and their property. Always have an adequate supply of salt, sand and shovels available to use on serious spots. Include this job in an employee's daily responsibilities, ensuring the regular salting and shoveling of major snow and ice accumulations.
  • Edges of sidewalks and handicap approach areas should be painted yellow, while curbs should be painted red for fire rescue approach areas. Make sure to visibly mark certain areas of concern with an appropriate noticeable color -- yellow or red. Painting certain curbs in your parking lot may also be required by local and/or state law. This measure will not detract from the aesthetic appeal of your restaurant and will help you to avoid a costly lawsuit. It will also help customers and employees know appropriate areas in which they can park. 

Don't Put Parking Lot Security on the Back Burner

A restaurant parking lot incident can be a disastrous occurrence for any restaurant. Too many restaurant owners and managers have put the importance of these parking lots on the back burner. By recognizing the importance of your parking lot, evaluating its problems, developing a well-thought-out plan, and putting in place solutions, a restaurant can help to avoid an unappetizing predicament.

Source: Alisa Pittman Cleek, Esq., Restaurant Startup & Growth