Bar Fights: Liability and Injury Claims

A night out with your friends in a bar or club should be filled with fellowship and camaraderie. Unfortunately, not all bar patrons see it that way. In a matter of seconds, a bar fight can erupt, quickly devolving an otherwise pleasant evening into one filled with chaos and bedlam.

Alcohol is the beverage of choice in bars and clubs. Consumed in excess, it has varying effects on people. Alcohol can cause euphoria, deepen depression, and for some, fuel inner rage. People often say there are happy drunks and sad drunks. Unfortunately, there are also mean drunks.

Mean drunks are more likely to respond inappropriately to any number of factors, including differing opinions, accidental touching, and perceived slights to themselves or their dates. Their responses are more likely confrontational, ranging from threats to fists. For some bar patrons, physical aggression is how they deal with adversity and opposition.

Whether someone punched you, cut you with broken glass or beer bottles, threw a chair or table at you, or you felt retaliation or excessive force from a bouncer, you may have the basis of a personal injury claim, not only against the assailant, but the bar owner as well.

If you were the victim of assault, read this.

Who’s responsible?

What happens when you’re injured during a bar fight? Who’s responsible for your medical bills? How about the cost of medicine you may need? If you have to miss work, who’s going to reimburse you for your lost wages? What about your pain and suffering?

These are all important questions. The answers depend on the underlying circumstances of the altercation and how the bar owner or her employees responded. In this section, we cover bar owner responsibility to patrons under the legal doctrine of premises liability. We also cover the required steps in building a strong personal injury claim against the bar owner.

The legal doctrine of premises liability

Bar patrons are, legally, invitees. As invitees, patrons have a legal right to remain safe from undue harm and injury while on the bar’s premises. This includes not only the bar itself, but the bar’s parking lot, alleyways, and all other property the bar sits on. Yet, the bar patron’s right to remain safe from injury is not absolute. In other words, the bar owner isn’t responsible for every injury (learn more about visitor’s vs. owner’s responsibilities).

Under the legal doctrine of premises liability, bar owners must do everything reasonably possible to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their patrons. Unfortunately, there aren’t any laws you can look up that specify what is “reasonable” and what’s not. Instead, the law must weigh each instance of personal injury to determine whether the bar owner, in fact, did everything reasonably possible to protect the patron(s) from undue harm, and if not, what’s the liability.

In most cases of premises liability, the bar owner must be able to foresee a potential injury could happen. This means the circumstance resulting in an injury is one that a prudent bar owner in a similar location knows or should know is likely to occur.

Example: Hiring adequate security

A bar located in a crime-infested area that caters to biker gangs is more likely to have a higher incidence of bar fights. Therefore, a prudent bar owner knows or should know it’s more likely that fights will occasionally erupt on the premises. This becomes even more likely when there’s a history of fights and arrests at the bar.

On the other hand, a bar located in an airport that caters to businesspeople and families is likely to have a much lower incidence of fights. The support for this is the absence or minimal reporting and arrests for patrons engaging in fights.

The Bar Owner’s Legal Duties

Because of the prudent owner doctrine, a bar owner must determine the proper amount of security to have in place to thwart or substantially diminish the incidence of bar fights. The more likely the incidence of altercations, the higher the number of security personnel (bouncers) required.

Yet having a lot of bouncers can sometimes be a two-edged sword for the bar owner. Bouncers have been known to use excessive force to stop altercations, resulting in unnecessary injuries not only to the participants, but to innocent bystanders as well. Bouncers must use force equal to the aggressive bar patron’s, and no more.

Example: Excessive force

Bouncers had to forcibly remove a drunken bar patron who started a fight. They used the same force against the aggressor’s friends who cheered him on but didn’t participate in the fight. The bouncers’ use of force against the bystanders would be considered excessive. It would make the bar owner and bouncers liable for the bystanders’ injuries and resulting damages (medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.).

The line of liability becomes somewhat blurred because of the traditional stance the courts take when deciding bar patrons’ personal injury claims. Technically, a bar owner, like the owner of any a store, hotel, school, etc. is not liable for the criminal acts of third parties.

Yet, the courts tend to interpret the rule of exclusion for criminal acts of third parties differently for bar owners. That’s because it’s well known that fights are much more likely to occur in bars than in stores, hotels, schools, etc. The bar owner should know this, and therefore she has a duty (obligation) to effectively deal with potential fights to avoid injuries to other patrons.

Unlawful Arrest

When, because of a bar fight, the police wrongfully arrest you, you may have the basis of a civil lawsuit for unlawful arrest against the bar owner. While the police are protected from lawsuits for unlawful arrest by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, bar owners are not.

Proving a Bar Injury Claim

If you’re hurt because of a bar fight, whether as a participant or an innocent bystander, to succeed in your personal injury claim you must prove:

  1. The bar owner had a legal duty to protect you from injuries.
  2. The bar owner could foresee the danger which caused your injuries.
  3. The bar owner breached (violated) a legal duty to protect you.
  4. The breach resulted in your injuries and real damages.

The courts call it your burden of proof. You must have sufficient evidence to convince the bar owner’s insurance company the owner breached her duty of care and that breach was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of your injuries.

Here’s what you need to do:

Identify the bar owner and report your injuries

You must start at the beginning. Report your injuries to the bar owner. If she’s not available, report your injuries to the manager. Make sure you get the bar owner’s name and contact information. If the bar is part of a chain, get the company’s contact information. Make clear the aggressor or the bouncers injured you during a fight or other turmoil.

Call the police

Documenting your injury claim by way of a police report can be strong evidence in your favor. When police respond to the disturbance, they will likely investigate by asking witnesses to describe how and why the fight broke out. If you were a bystander, specify exactly what caused your injury. If you were a participant and were injured when the bouncers used excessive force, make that clear as well. Your arrest doesn’t excuse a bouncer’s excessive force.

Get witness statements

Speak with witnesses. If you were a bystander, take the time to ask witnesses to write down what they saw and how you were hurt. Make sure they indicate you did not start the fight or in any other way contribute to your own injuries. If the police arrested you, ask your friends to gather witness statements for you.

You don’t need anything special like notarizing or sworn statements. Just get the witnesses to sign and date the bottom of each page of their statements.

Take photographs

Turn on the date and time stamp function on your cell phone camera. Photograph or video everything you can. Photograph strewn chairs and tables, broken glass, injuries to other patrons, and more. If it’s dark inside the bar, ask the manager to turn on the lights. Make sure you have someone photograph your injuries. Because some injuries like swelling and bruising may not appear for a day or so, photograph your injuries then as well.

Check criminal records

Today, it’s relatively easy to research a person’s criminal background. Research the criminal records of the fight participants and bouncers, the bar’s manager, and the bar owner. Criminal records go a long way to support excessive force by bouncers, the bar owner’s negligence in hiring them, and a bar manager’s proclivity to lie about the underlying facts of the fight.

Gather proof of damages

With the exception of unlawful arrest, you can’t succeed in your personal injury claim unless you have proof of your damages. Collect copies of your medical records. If paramedics came to the scene, request a copy of your treatment report. If they take you to the hospital, get copies of your admitting chart and doctors’ notes, including the doctors’ diagnosis of your injuries and the prognosis for your recovery.

Also, make copies of receipts for medications, crutches, slings, and even the parking fees you had to pay while visiting doctors for treatment. If you had to miss work, have your employer write a letter specifically verifying the dates of your absence and the amount of wages you lost.

Dealing With the Insurance Company

If you do your homework, dealing with the bar owner’s insurance company will be easier. Make sure you send the adjuster copies of all the evidence you gathered. Keep the originals. The adjuster may ask to take your recorded statement. That’s standard in most cases.

Because you know she’ll record your statement, it’s a good idea to write down ahead of time what you’re going to say. In your statement, recite the facts. Keep away from making judgments or whining. The adjuster doesn’t care. She makes her decision based on the facts as you tell them, the police report, and her own witnesses.

It’s vital you don’t say anything that tends to show you contributed to your own injuries. Avoid statements like “Well I was pretty drunk,” or “I was cursing at the bouncers.”

If your damages are less than $1,000, the insurance company may pay immediately. Some bar owners carry a kind of no-fault premises liability insurance that pays injury claims without concern about whose fault it was. Unfortunately, the no-fault insurance won’t cover your pain and suffering.

Personal Injury Attorneys

If your injuries are serious, including head trauma, broken bones, scarring, burns, etc. you really should hire a personal injury attorney. There’s just too much at stake in serious hard-injury claims. Most attorneys won’t charge for an initial office visit.

In almost all cases of hard injuries, an attorney can settle your claim for much more than you could on your own, even after deducting the attorney’s fees. If necessary, an attorney can file a bar fight lawsuit, subpoena witnesses, take depositions (recorded, sworn statements), etc.

If your injuries are the less serious soft-tissue kind, like bruises, minor cuts, abrasions (scrapes), sprains, etc. you can probably handle your own claim, especially if your damages are less than $1,000. For minor injury claims with low damages you may not find an attorney willing to take your case.

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