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How to Sue a Restaurant

Camila Lopez - Restaurant - June 6, 2024

Starting by writing a complaint letter to the restaurant using our free tool.

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    Restaurants have an impact on the lives of thousands of people every year, they serve as a place where people celebrate, meet, work, and enjoy many different aspects of life. In this article, learn about what to do if you have a dispute with a restaurant and how to file a small claims lawsuit. 

    Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a complaint letter to a restaurant? Check out our demand letter tool.

    Common Types of Complaints and Lawsuits Against Restaurants

    While there are many reasons why someone would file a complaint or a small claims lawsuit against a restaurant, we have listed some of the most common reasons below:

    • You went to a steakhouse that undercooked your steak, because of the undercooked steak you get food poisoning and have to go to the hospital.

    • You walk into a restaurant and slip on an unnoticeable puddle of water on the floor, because of the fall you break your foot

    • You are a server at a restaurant and you are not paid your hourly wages

    How to File a Complaint with Your Local Department of Health

    If you suffered from food poisoning after eating at a particular restaurant consider reporting the restaurant to your local health department before you do anything else. This is recommended regardless of your intent to sue to make sure no one else gets sick. 

    The actual complaint process varies greatly by state since this is a local health department concern. Generally speaking, you can either call the number of your local state department to get more information or file the complaint right there by phone. You may have the option of submitting your complaint online depending on your local department of health. 

    If you file a complaint with your local health department but also want to recover your damages, consider filing a lawsuit against the restaurant in small claims court. 

    Here we have listed some common things that either may be asked or may be beneficial for you to mention to your local health department:

    • What are your symptoms? 

    • Where did you eat? 

    • What did you eat? For example, was it some exotic meat or raw food like sushi?

    • Did anyone else get sick? If you went with your family and someone ordered the same plate as you did they also get sick?

    • Did you go to a doctor because of your symptoms? What did the doctor tell you or what medication did the doctor prescribe (if any)?

    • Do you have any leftovers? 

    How to Report Food Poisoning to the CDC 

    The CDC closely monitors incidents of food poisoning to make sure outbreaks do not occur. To report any cases of food poisoning use the information below. 

    • Call CDC INFO at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)

    The CDC has also provided a timeline of how food poisoning is reported to them, including the steps involved in the reporting process. Learn more on the CDC website.

    What To Do Before You File a Small Claims Lawsuit 

    Consider sending the restaurant a demand letter

    Before you file your small claims lawsuit, you may want to consider sending a demand letter to the restaurant. A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests to the restaurant. Make it clear in your demand letter that you intend to sue if you do not hear from the restaurant or they refuse to settle. 

    In some states making a demand for payment is a necessary step. For example, in California, you are required to demand payment prior to filing a small claims lawsuit. 

    We also recommend you send a demand letter before filing in small claims court because you may be able to recover your damages outside of court. The demand can be made orally, however, it is recommended you make the demand in writing so that it can be used as evidence at the small claims hearing.

    What to include in the demand letter?

    Unsure of what to include in your demand letter to the restaurant? Here are some things to consider: 

    • How much money you are owed from the restaurant? For example, if you had to go to the hospital because the restaurant gave you food poisoning, are you suing them to cover your hospital bills? How much were your hospital bills?  

    • Why the restaurant owes you the money you are claiming? 

    • Your contact information. This is so the restaurant knows where to send payment. 

    • State that if they don't respond or pay, you intend to sue.

    • Give them a few days to respond (usually about 7 to 14 days).

    We have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter to a restaurant. Check out our demand letter tool.

    File a complaint against a restaurant with the Better Business Bureau 

    Another option you have is to leave a complaint against the restaurant with the BBB. Keep in mind that the BBB is not a government agency and cannot force the restaurant to resolve your complaint.

    The steps for filling out a BBB complaint are listed below.

    1. Go to the BBB website linked here.

    2. Use this link to file a complaint. Follow the procedure answering all the questions truthfully and with as much detail as possible.

    How Much Can You Sue a Restaurant for in Small Claims Court?

    The maximum amount you can sue for in small claims court varies by state but is usually somewhere between $2,500 and $25,000. To know the exact limit for your court, search for your local small claims court limit. 

    By suing in small claims you are usually agreeing to waive any amount over the maximum amount you can sue for, even if you are owed more. For example, if the restaurant owes you $12,000 in wages, and you decide to sue in a small claims court where the limit is $10,000, you are waiving $2,000. This means the maximum you could win is $10,000.

    While you may be missing out on the full amount you are owed, there are practical benefits to suing in small claims instead of suing in "regular court."

    Here are some of the benefits:

    • Court filing fees are generally cheaper in small claims than in other courts.

    • The process is usually faster in small claims than in other courts as your hearing will usually be scheduled 30-70 days after you file the lawsuit. For more exact information, contact the court you would be filing in, as this information varies greatly by court.

    • Lawyers are generally not allowed or needed in small claims which helps keep the costs of suing low.

    Steps for Filing Your Small Claims Lawsuit

    If a restaurant ignored your demand letter, consider suing them in small claims court. 

    There are mainly 4 steps to taking a restaurant to small claims court. 

    1. Prepare the lawsuit.

    2. File the lawsuit.

    3. Serve the lawsuit.

    4. Prepare for the small claims hearing.

    Preparing Your Small Claims Lawsuit

    Go to your local small claims court website to find the small claims court forms you will need to fill out to start your lawsuit. 

    You will also need to confirm the correct legal entity name for the restaurant. Once you have the correct legal entity name, you will be able to search using your state’s secretary of state website to look up the “agent for service of process” for the restaurant, as you may be required to list this information on the court forms. You will later serve the lawsuit on the listed agent for service of process. 

    File the Small Claims Lawsuit Against the Restaurant

    Call the court clerk to verify how many copies of the lawsuit you need to bring with you and how they accept payment for the filing fees. Some small claims courts accept filing by mail, fax, or electronically. Be sure to confirm with the court what methods are available so you can select what works best for you.

    Serve the Lawsuit

    After the lawsuit is filed, the next step is to serve the small claims lawsuit on the restaurant. Serving is the process of notifying someone that you have filed a lawsuit against them. There are different rules on how to serve a company in each state so make sure you review the rules for serving to find what works best for you. 

    In many states, you will need to serve the “agent for service of process” for the restaurant. This is a person or business that is in charge of receiving legal documents on behalf of the restaurant.

    Confirm with the court to determine if there are any additional filings you need to complete and file after you have served the restaurant.

    Prepare for the Hearing 

    Small claims hearings are informal and most hearings last around 15 minutes. While many disputes settle before the hearing, here is what to expect if your lawsuit does not settle.

    The hearing:

    • Right before the hearing, the judge will ask you and the restaurant to show each other the evidence that you will later show the judge. This could include hospital bills related to your food poisoning, or pay stubs if you are suing for unpaid wages. 

    • The judge will ask you why you are suing. Then the judge will turn to the restaurant and ask them their side of the story. 

    • The hearing may last around 15 minutes, but this varies state by state or even by court.‍

    • The judge will ask you to show them the evidence you brought. Sometimes the judge will keep the evidence. Other times, you will get the evidence right back.

    • Very rarely will a judge tell you whether you won or lost at the hearing. Instead, the judge will tell you and the restaurant that the decision will be mailed to you (which usually takes a few weeks to two months or so).

    Learn how to file a small claims lawsuit by reviewing our 50-State Guide to Small Claims.  

    Need help writing a complaint letter to a restaurant? Check out our demand letter tool.


    Camila Lopez

    Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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