What is a grease trap?

Grease is a major cause of backups in sewer lines and, as a result, municipalities have established laws to prevent fats, oils and grease (FOP) from entering the sewer systems. Restaurants and commercial establishments are responsible for knowing and following local laws, which include use of grease traps. Grease traps are plumbing fixtures that contain pools of rotting food waste containing fats, oils and grease.

Smaller grease traps are located inside or above ground, but larger ones, sometimes called grease trap inceptors or grease inceptors, are embedded in the ground and can hold 100 to 3,000 or more gallons of FOP. Restaurant grease traps are often located outside the building under manhole covers. The covers are removed for tanker trucks to pump out the grease for disposal.

Grease trap lids pose safety risks. If not securely closed or strong enough to withstand heavy weight, the lids can cave in or flip over. Both adults and children have accidentally fallen through the grease trap opening and many have drowned.

How does a grease trap work?

Diagram of a grease trap at a restaurantCommercial grease traps work by slowing down the flow of warm or hot greasy water and allowing it to cool. This allows the grease and oil in the water to separate and float to the top of the trap. The cooled water is then allowed to flow down the pipe to the sewer.

Larger grease traps, such as underground grease traps used by many food service establishments, rely on gravity to separate the fats, oils and grease from the water. Commercial grease traps cost between $250 and $1,500. Grease trap installation costs range from $4,000 to $8,500.

Laws vary on how often underground grease traps should be emptied on a regular basis. Owners of establishments can be fined for allowing grease, fats and oils into the sewer system.

Grease trap codes

States and municipalities have established rules and regulations that establishments must follow in regard to grease traps. In some cases, local health departments have established their own guidelines. These regulations generally address tank design and size as well as how the traps are inspected or how often they are emptied, according to the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE).

Major provisions of model plumbing codes for grease traps require that the grease inceptors be buried outside buildings where they are easily accessible for professional inspection and maintenance, and preferably directly behind the facility as close to the source of FOG as possible (e.g., near the kitchen). Outdoor inceptors located in a traffic area are required to have covers that are “capable of withstanding the traffic load.”

Sadie Grace Andrews Law

In April 2018, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Sadie Grace Andrews Law requiring restaurants and other commercial food service establishments in the state with outside grease traps to cover their traps with manholes that can withstand weight of a vehicle and that the covers be secured “by a bolt or other locking mechanism” or be made of cast iron “rated for heavy road traffic.” The law also allows a public water or sewer authority to determine the type of cover required and to enforce its own grease control policy. Establishments that fail to comply are subject to a $100 civil penalty that would be assessed by the Alabama Department of Public Health for every day the required cover isn’t installed.

The Sadie Grace Andrews Law was named in memory of a 3-year-old girl who died in October 2017 after falling into a grease trap outside an ice cream shop in Auburn, Alabama.

Grease Trap Deaths

There have been dozens of reports of safety incidents involving commercial grease traps, many of which have resulted in death.

  • July 2019 – A 3-year-old boy died after falling into a grease trap outside Tim Hortons fast food chain in Rochester, New York. Witnesses removed his body from the trap, but he could not be revived.
  • April 2019 – Two contractors and an airport employee were hospitalized after falling into a grease trap at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Two workers pulled themselves out, but a third man was found unconscious about 8 to 10 feet down the trap. Responders pulled the man out of the but he had suffered cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead the next day.
  • March 2018 – A man walking with his 5-year-old daughter outside a Tulsa, Oklahoma, Panera Bread saw his daughter fall into a grease trap after stepping on the lid. The lid closed after she fell through. He looked in and saw the top of her head bobbing at the surface. He was able to reach in and pull her out. Panera reported that the company that serviced the grease trap days before had not properly secured the plastic lid.
  • October 2017Sadie Grace Andrews, 3, died after falling into a grease trap outside Bruster’s Real Ice Cream in Auburn, Alabama. The incident led to the April 2018 passing of the Sadie Grace Andrews Law, which requires grease trap lids to include locking mechanisms and covers that can withstand the weight of a vehicle without accidentally caving in or opening.
  • January 2015 – A Wisconsin mother witnessed her 3-year-old son fall into an unsecured grease trap outside a Denny’s restaurant. She frantically reached into the dark, foul smelling grease trap but couldn’t reach him. His father managed to grab the hood of his jacket and pull him to safety. The boy was taken to the hospital and treated.
  • April 2012 – A 5-year-old Tennessee girl fell into a grease trap outside a Sonic restaurant when the cover “dislodged.” Her father witnessed the incident and pulled her to safety, but she was “engulfed in grease.”
  • February 2011 – An 80-year-old North Carolina man died after falling into a supermarket grease trap. The man had gone to clean the store’s trap, as he normally did. When he didn’t return to the store, another employee found him in the trap.
  • April 2011 – A New Jersey boy fell into a grease trap outside a Vineland supermarket and drowned just days before his fourth birthday. The grease trap lid had reportedly been removed. Emergency crews pulled his body from the five-foot-deep trap filled with “sludgy material” but were unable to revive him.
  • January 1996 – A 5-year-old boy died shortly after falling into a grease trap outside Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant in Shreveport, Louisiana. The grease trap lid allegedly gave way after he stepped on it. A guest dove into the tank and retrieved the unconscious boy, but he died less than 24 hours later.

These are just a few of the incidents of injuries and deaths that were reported in the news. It is likely the incidence is much higher, as not all may have been reported by the media. In addition to grease traps, many septic tanks also have similar covers and similar incidents of people falling in the septic tanks.

Grease Trap Lawsuits

Beasley Allen Law Firm’s Cole Portis represents the family of Sadie Grace Andrews, a 3-year-old who died after falling into an unsecured grease trap at an ice cream shop in Auburn Alabama. Her death prompted a law in her name that requires establishments to secure grease trap lids with locking mechanisms strong enough to withstand the weight of a vehicle. Sadie Grace’s parents hope to get Sadie’s law enacted nationwide so that no one has to endure this preventable tragedy again.

Lawyers in our Personal Injury and Products Liability section would be interested in talking with anyone who has a claim related to a serious injury or death after falling into a grease trap or septic tank. Call us at 800-898-2034 or by email.

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