DennisBeaverMarch 26, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

“Just how dimly lit should a restaurant be? Can it be so dark that it’s dangerous, and if someone is injured because of the low light level, the owners would be liable?” Visalia reader David asked.

“We were in an upscale, Mediterranean-style restaurant in Southern California. The four of us were led to our table, in a fairly large dining room with about 10 tables. On each was a single candle providing illumination. The room had overhead light fixtures, but they were not turned on. Most light came from the single candle, and a small amount from the parking lot outside.

“Once handed menus, we asked our waiter if it would be possible to turn on some lights, as it was too dark to read. He replied that keeping the lights off ‘saves energy, and management feels it is romantic this way.’ We noticed other patrons struggling to read with the candle, so two of us went to our cars and returned with flashlights. Then other patrons got flashlights from their cars. If facial expressions could kill, the faces of a couple of the waiters had our murder written all over.

“When our orders were brought to the table, we had to shine the flashlights to see what we were eating. It was ridiculous attempting to have an expensive dinner in the dark.”

Diabetes and bad bump into a table

“On my way out of the dining area going to the washroom, I was unable to see the leg of a nearby chair, caught my foot in it, and took a hard bump into the side of a table. Upon getting home that evening, it was clear that I had hurt myself to an extent where medical care was necessary, as I am diabetic.

“There will be several hundred dollars in medical bills. Do you think the restaurant is responsible for my injury?”

Dangerous to put ambiance before safety

Our answer to David’s question was simple: “Unless something you did – such as being intoxicated – caused the accident, then you bet they’re at fault.” But we still wanted to verify our legal opinion with an expert in the area of restaurant law. And so we asked a friend of this column, Professor Stephen Barth of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, for his insight.

Barth, author of “Hospitality Law” and co-author of “Restaurant Law Basics,” provided this analysis:

“One question leads you to the answer. Did the restaurant operator use reasonable care in the operation of the restaurant? Restaurants have a legal duty to be run in a prudent fashion and to exercise reasonable care for their patrons. That certainly includes lighting. A restaurant operator should never put ambiance and decor before safety.

“A restaurant should be lit sufficiently so that changes in flooring levels, in addition to where tables and chairs are located, are clearly visible. If the average person could not read the menu without a flashlight, then it is obviously not lit appropriately. Even more dangerous, think of the fire risk in tilting a candle so that the menu could be read,” he stressed.

Dark interiors an American thing

“I travel often internationally, and do not have trouble overseas with dimly lit restaurants like I have experienced here in the States. For some odd reason, many restaurateurs here seem to think that a dark interior is romantic and pleasing to the guests. But you do not find that elsewhere.

“Typically in the USA, it is the finer-dining ethnic restaurants – French, Italian or Middle Eastern – where management thinks that low levels of lighting enhance the dining experience. I have been in restaurants where servers had to be outfitted with flashlights to illuminate the menus so that the customers could read the menu!

“The fact that they have to do this is pretty conclusive that the patrons can’t read the menu which is in front of their face, much less be able to see the steps as they are walking to the restroom or the exits. It becomes a real issue in cases of emergency, or a fire, as lighting then is so critical,” he points out.

Too dim = Trip-and-fall injuries

“An insufficiently lit restaurant is going to have the danger of a greater number of trip and falls. You are going to have people running into tables, striking their heads on overhangs or edges that they would not otherwise do.”

We do not know if the restaurant our reader was hurt in serves fowl, but it seems pretty clear that their attitude towards lighting may have cooked their goose.

And just what should our Visalia reader do from this point out? What should anyone do who is injured by the apparent negligence of a property owner? The answers next time.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.