When does food become property?

Posted: 18th January 2017

Dominican RepublicIn a case that will be required reading for anyone working in the hospitality industry, the Court of Appeal has ruled in the context of a holiday food poisoning case that, when food is served, or taken from a buffet and put on a plate, it becomes the property of the consumer.

Mr and Mrs Wood had been taken ill with acute gastroenteritis whilst on a package holiday at a luxury hotel, Gran Bahia Principe Hotel, in the Dominican Republic to celebrate their wedding anniversary. After they launched proceedings against the travel company, TUI Travel PLC trading as First Choice, that had provided them with the ‘all inclusive’ holiday, a judge found that all reasonable food hygiene precautions had been taken and that the hotel management was blameless.

The Wood's claim was nevertheless upheld on the basis that the food items that they had taken from the hotel buffet were goods that had been transferred to them, within the meaning of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982. Being contaminated, the food was not of satisfactory quality. Their illnesses were neither trivial nor transitory and they were between them awarded £24,000 for pain, suffering and loss of amenity.

In challenging that ruling, First Choice expressed concern that package tour operators should not be taken to guarantee the quality of food and drink the world over when it is provided as part of a holiday they have contracted to provide. It was submitted that they had contracted to supply services to the couple, not goods.

First Choice argued that it had provided no more than a licence to the couple to consume food from the buffet. There was no question of them having become owners of the food prior to it being destroyed on being put into their mouths. In upholding the judge’s ruling, however, the Court of Appeal found that, once the food had made its way onto the couple’s plates, it was "appropriated to them" and became their property. The conditions for liability under the Act were thus satisfied.