By: Peter J. Lamont, Esq.
New Jersey Business and Personal Law Attorney
Law Offices of Peter J. Lamont
Should it be your turn to treat your family, relatives, friends and even total strangers to a sumptuous meal and copious amounts of alcohol, you no doubt have a lengthy checklist of things that must be done before the happy day. However, you must not loose sight of the nearly endless liability risks associated with the Thanksgiving feast.
These groups of people who will be availing themselves of your hospitality are social guests, and as such there are certain responsibilities we assume as they step onto our property - not unlike Halloween - only with tryptophan and liquor.
A check with your insurance agent is in order to ensure you are adequately covered should the unexpected happen. For instance, a beloved (but prone to overdrink) uncle happens to trip over the family dog and fall into the swimming pool, which you haven't gotten around to draining. Are you covered should he decide to sue?
Or even worse, your uncle is unable to be awakened from his post-feast armchair slumber due to intoxicating levels of tryptophan. In a panic, you splash a glass of water in his face. Unfortunately, the water hits your cat who, being startled and annoyed, runs into the table upon which rests your turkey scented candle. The candle falls and sets your living room curtains on fire. Unfortunately, before your grandfather pats down the flames with his toupee, sections of your walls get scorched necessitating a Thanksgiving call to your insurance agent (who, incidentally may not feel like being such a good neighbor on Thanksgiving). You need to know before a tragedy like this occurs if your policy contains a tryptophan induced destruction endorsement.
Food Liability & Related Claims
The food issue is another matter altogether. Litigation arising out of the Thanksgiving feast can incorporate various legal areas including family law, personal injury and intellectual property.
First, it hardly needs mentioning, but an undercooked turkey is a health hazard. It may be decided that you should invite a physician familiar with food poisoning, specifically salmonella to the feast.
Next, a significant number of marital disputes arise out of unfavorable comments made by the eating spouse to the cooking spouse about the quality and taste of the food. Moreover, the cook (especially female cooks) have an innate ability to identify fake compliments. So eating spouses (especially men), do yourselves a favor and consult with counsel prior to offering any compliments or criticism to the cooking spouse.
In fact, given the soaring number of divorce cases resulting at this time of the year - do your due diligence and consider retaining an attorney specializing in family law - you may even cover all your bases and invite said attorney to the festivities. At the very least, have their phone number on speed dial.
To illustrate, last Thanksgiving a woman barricaded herself in her host's bedroom, declaring she would not leave until an apology was offered from her husband, who she claimed, had been overly friendly with her hosts wife. The standoff lasted fourteen hours - ending only when local police were called. Following the incident a lengthy divorce proceeding ensued. This unfortunate divorce could have been avoided had a skilled divorce and mediation attorney been present at the table. Of course, the ultimate outcome would likely have been the same after her husband gave her a knock-off Louis Vutton handbag for Christmas, but I digress.
Personal Injury Liability
On the personal injury front, make sure that you have your attorney on standby. Thanksgiving is fraught with personal injury risks. Considering the number of family members gathering under one roof - there will be arguments. Mix in alcohol and there may even be physical violence. This is true whether or not you deem your family functional or dysfunctional.
In addition to the intentional acts of disgruntled or intoxicated family members you should be aware of possible claims of negligence arising out of loose carpets, exploding turkey fryers, injuries associated with plastic silverware, burn injuries due to excessively hot gravy, unstable chair legs etc.
Intellectual Property Disputes
Another major cause of action arises our of intellectual property disputes. Whether you consider the final product worth eating or not, Aunt Millie’s pecan pie recipe constitutes proprietary information that is protected by U.S. copyright laws. Additionally, the fact that she identifies that pie as “Millie’s Magnificent and Mind-blowing Thanksgiving Pecan Pie Pilgrims Weep For” may be subject of both copyright and trademark laws protections. Those who dare to infringe upon Millie’s rights and bring a substantially similar pie to the feast are sure to end up on the wrong side of a federal Lanham Act claim.
Aside from liability, Thanksgiving celebrations also give rise to financial transactions - usually taking the form of a loan from one family member to another. Contracts should be drafted outlining terms of repayment. An attorney with a good knowledge of contract law and what constitutes usury in your state can be invaluable, and should obviously be on site. It may be necessary to have access to a notary public as well.
Civil Rights/Discrimination Claims
Separately, if it is your custom to say a blessing before your Thanksgiving meal, bear in mind we are a pluralistic society - consisting of many faiths. Familiarize yourself with your guests' religious preferences and invite clergy from each faith to speak before dining. This will go a long way in preventing a lawsuit involving religious prejudice (or possibly a hate crime). For atheists and other non-believers, it is recommended that earplugs or related protective hearing devices be provided.
Finally, with the updated and expanded guest list it is suggested that you contact your local municipality prior to the big day to confirm that you will not be violating local fire ordinances by exceeding the maximum occupancy of your dining room.
This list is by no means complete, but should give you a good jumping off point for discussions with the legal team (and various other professionals) with whom you will need to be in contact this Thanksgiving.
P.S. Don't ever let it be said that attorneys don't have a sense of humor!