Richard Barr Writer (and lawyer)

Dinner Suits

A minor accident made national news last week when a guest at a dinner party who had allegedly fallen through a glass chair made a claim for compensation against her hostess. Her injury was reported to be a scratch on her bottom and some hurt pride.

Those who are eager to make such points will claim that this is yet one more step towards the compensation culture of the USA where, so it is said, every conceivable injury results in a multimillion dollar law suit. If we are moving in that direction, the would-be protagonists will nonetheless have to cope with our judicial system which certainly is showing no signs of moving over to the ways of our American cousins.

But, on the principle that there is almost as much angst created by defending a claim as by the ultimate court decision, how should future dinner party hosts guard themselves against thank you notes being replaced by letters before action?

Disclaimers will be of little help. The Supply of Goods and Services Act invalidates any attempt to exclude liability for personal injury. But not everyone knows that, and many notices in hotels and other public places still attempt to absolve the proprietors from blame for injuries. Therefore, the more faint hearted litigants might be discouraged by communications from the Honourable Mrs Rupert Gobsmack which specify, in the small print at the bottom of the At home invitation, that neither she nor her servants will be liable for any loss or injury suffered during the dinner party, howsoever caused.

In place of name cards at table, the prudent host will now display warnings:

The food you are about to eat is believed to be made from the finest ingredients the supermarket is able to supply, but no responsibility can be accepted by the proprietors if the occasional snail or caterpillar finds its way into the gastronomic masterpieces prepared by the kitchen staff.

The decanter containing the best vintage pressed by the hard worked feet of the vineyard workers of Bordeaux should have around its neck a silver plaque warning that wine can sometimes be corked, and that if offence is caused to sensitive palates, this, whilst being a matter of regret, is nonetheless not something for which a claim will be entertained.

The lady of the house must also ensure that other guests do not themselves render her liable for claims. Each guest should receive written instructions on arrival that it is bad form to spill drink over other guests, that all conversation should be politically correct, and remarks of a sexist, racist, fascist or other similar nature will result in immediate expulsion from the house, whether or not the proceedings have reached the stage of the port.

The hostess should also be prepared to warn about the effects of passive smoking, food colouring, non-organic produce genetically modified foods and artificial sweeteners. She might decide, as did the owner of the (now bottomless glass chair) to cease entertaining at home, thereby enhancing the income of the catering industry but, so it would seem, diminishing the funds of American style litigators.

Published in Solicitors Journal 25 May 2001

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