Does a restaurant have a duty to keep its outdoor dining area free of black widow spiders, or do customers dining al fresco just have to accept the risk of being bitten with poisonous venom?

That was the question recently presented to the California Court of Appeal in Coyle v. Historic Mission Inn Corp. (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 627. Coyle was appealing the Riverside County Superior Court's decision granting the hotel’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing her lawsuit over a poisonous spider bite.

In May of 2013, Coyle and a friend ate lunch on the patio of the Inn. Coyle placed her jacket next to her while she ate. When she put it back on, she felt a sharp pain in her right shoulder blade, which began to spasm immediately. She told her lunch companion she had been “bitten by something.”

The next morning Coyle's arms and legs were paralyzed, and she had to use her nose to call for help. She spent six days in the hospital, where doctors determined she had been bitten by a spider. Because the spider venom had reached her spinal fluid, the injury left her permanently damaged, without full use of her left hand and leg.

Coyle sued the Mission Inn, arguing that it had not fulfilled its duty of care to its patrons because it had not eradicated spiders on its patio, nor placed signs warning of their presence. She said the hotel's employees had reported more than a dozen sightings of spiders in the year before she was bitten, including at least two black widow spiders.

(Black widow spiders are typically about an inch and a half long, with an hourglass-shaped mark on their abdomens. Only the female is harmful; its venom is a neurotoxin 15 times stronger than that of a rattlesnake. The bite is rarely fatal, except to small children, the elderly or the infirm.)

The Mission Inn said it did not have a duty to protect its customers from spider or insect bites because there was no foreseeable risk to diners based on the history of the spider sightings on the patio. The trial court agreed, and said there was no evidence that there had been any bites from spiders on the hotel's patio.  

The lower court granted the motion, dismissing Coyle’s case. She appealed, and the appellate court ruled in her favor.

The appellate court noted that the Mission Inn is in Riverside, an area where black widow spiders are common. The Inn had instructed employees to watch for and report insects and spiders on its premises, but it was unclear if that information was forwarded to the Inn’s pest control service, or if the service specifically targeted spiders in its treatments.

The appellate court distinguished the case from an earlier case that also involved a spider – this time a brown recluse – that bit a visitor in a private home located in an area where the brown recluse is not common. The homeowner did not know the spider was in the house.

In the brown recluse case, the court had ruled that the homeowner did not have a duty to protect the guest. If it ruled otherwise, it pointed out, “the burden on the landowner would be enormous and would border on establishing an absolute liability. Further, the task of defining the duty and the measures required of the owner or occupier of private residences to meet that duty would be difficult in the extreme.”

Since the Inn already was paying for pest control service, the court said, the additional cost of eradicating black widow spiders would likely be small, and certainly not so great a financial burden as to be against public policy.

The appellate court thus found that a restaurant owner has a duty to exercise reasonable care in protecting its customers from being bitten by venomous spiders.

It suggested that reasonable care might involve putting in place pest control measures specific to black widow spiders, or placing warning signs on the property.

But what was reasonable under these circumstances was an issue for a jury decide, not the judge, the higher court said. It reversed the lower court's judgment of dismissal and order granting summary judgment, and sent the case back to the superior court for trial, awarding costs to Coyle.

By Rachel Balchum