Sunday, February 20, 2011

It isn't all Wal-Mart's Fault

My two favorite locally-owned cafés recently went out of business.  It's too bad. They both had great atmosphere and some really dangerous desserts, not to mention very friendly people behind the counter who actually bothered to recognize the faces and habits of their regular customers. Now the nearest place for me to get an herbal tea and my chocolate fix is the place Dave Ramsey loves to call "Fivebucks".

My first summer job in high school was also at a locally-owned coffee place back in my hometown.  My boss told me that the place pretty much lived hand-to-mouth most of the time, and it had been in business for almost a decade at that point, and had a steady flow of loyal customers!

It's tough owning a small business, which is probably why I have never yet actually done it. I have imagined.  I have fantasized. I have even done a little research on the matter.  But then I always get a nice cold dose of reality. Like this story earlier this month involving a man who was shot in a Seattle-area Denny's.  He was shot, as it happens, by another customer who had a bad temper, and even worse aim.  Tragically, he ended up a paraplegic as a result of his injuries. The shooter went to prison, and the victim went to court--and took Denny's with him.

Denny's settled out of court for $13 million, which saved it from the $46  million the jury was about to award. According to the article, "The jury found the company failed to provide security even though police had responded many times to reports of violent crimes at the restaurant."

Now, I do not wish to minimize the genuine pain and suffering of the victim.  It does seem like someone ought to compensate him for that which he has lost, but I am not certain that it is the restaurant who has the responsibility, and I am greatly concerned about what such a ruling means for restaurant owners who do not have thirteen million dollars lying around to pay to injured customers.  Even with security present, there is no guarantee that some hothead with a firearm isn't going to start shooting.  If they can't hire their own security guard, will mom and pop and grandma have to go to court, too?  Should business owners move if the neighborhood starts to decline, in order to avoid liability?

Small businesses do not only have to contend with cuthroat competition from impersonal big-box stores and monster coffee chains. They also have to face the increasingly high cost of doing business in a lawsuit-happy society.  Along with small restaurants and coffee shops we are watching the gradual disappearance of   small,  medical practices and other types of businesses. Small private schools have to dedicate ridiculous amounts of time and paperwork to keeping their legal backsides covered in every detail. Why? Because people are just as happy to sue them as Wal-mart, and for the same large amounts.  Maybe the big guys can take it. But I don't know about mom and pop and grandma.

Maybe that's why internet businesses are becoming so popular. No buildings for people to be injured in.

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