Member Sickened from Food at Church Banquet Not Allowed to Sue Caterer

While the church wasn’t named in lawsuit, churches should note the potential liability they could face if accused of negligence.

Key point 10-01. Negligence is conduct that creates an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm to the person or property of another, and which results in the foreseeable harm. The important point is that negligence need not be intentional. It includes conduct that is simply careless, heedless, or inadvertent. A person who kills a pedestrian while texting on a cellphone did not intend to kill the victim, but nonetheless may be liable for monetary damages in a civil lawsuit based on negligence.

A federal appeals court ruled that a woman who became violently ill after consuming shellfish prepared by a hotel caterer for a church banquet could not sue for her injuries.


A female church member (the “plaintiff”) suffered an allergic reaction after eating a meal prepared by a hotel caterer for a church’s annual banquet hosted at the hotel’s conference center.

Representatives for the hotel communicated extensively with the pastor organizing the event about the entrée selections for the banquet. The menu was scheduled to include a blue-crab-stuffed chicken. The pastor asked the hotel about a chicken option with no seafood in case anyone had an allergy, and the hotel agreed to make one available. But no one from the church ever told the hotel to expect someone with food allergies and the church placed no orders for a seafood-free chicken dish.

The signed banquet event order forms reflected orders for 30 blue-crab-stuffed chicken breasts and 20 honey-glazed salmon entrees, with dietary restrictions marked “N/A.” When a hotel employee asked the pastor on the day of the banquet whether any attendees had “changes to this menu because of restrictions,” the pastor responded “no.”

The plaintiff did not inform the church or the hotel about her shellfish allergy. She claimed that she never saw the menu options that the church posted; instead, the pastor told her only that the options were “salmon, chicken or veggies.” The plaintiff told the pastor that she wanted the chicken.

On the day of the banquet, the plaintiff sat at a seat marked by a place card stating her name and “chicken.” The pastor had prepared these place cards in accordance with the event order form she received from the hotel. The hotel instructed the church to provide place cards to identify which entrée each attendee should be served.

The plaintiff didn’t communicate with the server, who delivered her blue-crab-stuffed chicken. She ate a few bites and almost immediately became seriously ill.

The plaintiff: Hotel was guilty of negligence

The plaintiff sued the hotel, claiming that it was guilty of negligence and “owed a duty to all patrons to provide an adequate warning of the latent dangers arising from the consumption of seafood products.”

She also asserted that the hotel knew or should have known the chicken dish contained seafood, which would be life-threatening to people with seafood allergies; that the presence of the crabmeat wasn’t obvious to her; and that the “food label” didn’t disclose the presence of crab meat. A federal district court in Georgia rejected the plaintiff’s claims, and the case was appealed to a federal appeals court.

Appeals court: Hotel had not “misled or misinformed consumers”

The appeals court concluded that the district court did not err in dismissing the case because the plaintiff failed to show that the hotel breached any duty of care that it owed her and therefore “no genuine issue as to any material fact” remained to be adjudicated.

The court noted that the plaintiff’s theory of liability was based on an alleged duty to warn all patrons of the latent dangers of seafood consumption. But “she has failed to identify any . . . statute or caselaw that might possibly stand for the proposition that a food-serving establishment has such a duty—particularly where, as here, the patrons preselected entrees to be served and told the establishment that no one had any dietary restrictions.”

The plaintiff noted that Georgia law prescribes that “[f]ood shall be offered for human consumption in a way that does not mislead or misinform the consumer.” According to the plaintiff, the hotel violated this provision by “disguising blue crab stuffed chicken as a regular chicken breast entrée.” The court disagreed:

This argument fails based on the undisputed facts in the record. [The hotel’s] agents communicated to the Church’s [pastor] repeatedly and in writing that the entrée being offered was a blue-crab-stuffed chicken breast and asked several times whether any guests had dietary restrictions. [The hotel] also offered a different seafood-free chicken entrée for anyone with a seafood allergy. [The pastor] nevertheless executed the banquet event orders on behalf of her church for “thirty blue crab stuffed chicken breasts.” . . . There is no plausible argument that [the hotel] “disguise[ed]” its dish or misled or misinformed consumers when it provided the exact entrée that the Church ordered for its members. Therefore, [the plaintiff] has failed to establish that [the hotel] breached any duty that it may have had under this [law].

What this means for churches

Churches conduct meal functions for a number of reasons, including retirements, celebrations, special anniversaries, weddings, and funerals. Such meals may be prepared onsite by church employees or volunteers, catered onsite by an outside food service, or catered by an outside food service at a location other than the church.

Whether an event occurs on or off church property, church staff must take steps to ensure that persons with food allergies are identified and accommodated. While the plaintiff in this case chose not to name her church as a defendant, others in similar circumstances may not be so restrained.

Crawford v. Marriott International, Inc. 2021 WL 5054442 (11th Cir. 2021)

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