Failure to tip on gratuity demand likely is civil issue

When we dine out I do not mind leaving a tip for good service, but what makes me mad is when a restaurant states it will add 18 percent to your bill if you have over six or eight people at your table. How can this be legal? Isn't that why they call it a tip? You leave a tip for good service, and it should be your call on what you leave. Times are tough and sometimes people have a hard time just going out to dinner. I would assume if they add the tip to your bill, you could cross it out and there is nothing they could do about it, isn't this correct?

— Sheri V., Medford

Nice to get a question that isn't traffic-related once in a while, although you really came up with one of the more unusual questions I've had in the 10 years of doing this column.

Researching the answer led to a lot of different thoughts and opinions. Here's what I found out.

By chance, I ran across our civil sergeant, Bob Grantham, while we were both out at the firing range the other day, and I brought this up. He wondered what the charge might be if someone didn't pay, and the best we could come up with was theft of services. His thought was similar to mine: A gratuity or tip is almost by definition optional.

However, if an establishment has a notation on its menu that groups of eight or more have a 15 percent gratuity added, then by ordering you may be agreeing to the terms listed on the menu. We couldn't make the call one way or the other.

From there I called a couple of local eateries and got varied responses to the question.

Dave Partridge of Applebee's says the restaurant doesn't has that requirement for large groups and never has. He says the gratuity is a tradition, not a requirement, and should be based on service rendered. Personally, he says, if he has an attentive server who takes good care of him, keeps his water glass filled and such, then he tips 20 percent. A server who's doing their job, but not above and beyond, will get 15 percent, while a server who's "off their pace," or where the food's less than expected, will merit a lower amount.

James Turner of Red Robin says there is no large-group gratuity policy, but, funny thing, it is going to be implementing one soon. He says the restaurant still feels that the added gratuity for a large group is optional and that it will differ by adding a second blank line where a diner can add or subtract an amount from the 15 percent automatically calculated with the bill. He also says that diners should be told up front about any large-group gratuity being added to the bill before they order.

Rebecca Lambe at Roadhouse Grill says it used to have the large-group gratuity printed on its menu but recently got rid of it due to complaints. Now when someone calls in with a reservation request for a large group, they are told of the 15 percent gratuity beforehand and can then agree or decline. She said the reason restaurants charge for large groups is that they take up a lot more of a server's time than running a bunch of smaller tables.

I finally called our district attorney's office regarding any comment it might have. The office consensus was "no comment." Strictly speaking, this would fall into a civil area of law, not criminal law, and it didn't want to give legal advice on civil matters. I gathered that, as stated above, it could be looked at as an optional tip or agreement between restaurant and diner and could be looked at as a broken civil agreement. If an establishment were to pursue the matter, then the advice was to get a good civil attorney.

I got the feeling that none of the places I talked to would take the matter to that extent. So there you have it, an answer that's a non-answer, but I had fun checking it out for you. My advice is to check with the restaurant prior to ordering if you're in a large group, and make sure both sides have an understanding about what the terms will be.

Dace Cochran, a patrol sergeant with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, writes a regular Q&A column on police issues for the Mail Tribune. Have a question for him? Write to Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501, or email

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