Bar Fights: How to Prove Liability and Win Your Injury Claim

Get fair compensation for bar fight injuries. Learn when the bar should pay for injuries caused by mean drunks, rough bouncers, and parking lot brawls.

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 turning an otherwise pleasant evening into one filled with danger and chaos.

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. Being asked to leave can spark a confrontational outburst ranging from threats to fists.

Whether someone punched you, cut you with a broken bottle, threw a chair at you, or you suffered excessive force from a bouncer, you may have the basis of a personal injury claim, not only against the guy who started the fight, but the bar owner as well.

When Is the Bar Liable for Injuries?

Depending on the underlying circumstance leading to your injuries, the bar may be responsible for paying your medical bills, lost wages, and other damages resulting from a bar fight.

Understanding Premises Liability

Every state has premises liability laws. Premises liability is a legal term meaning a property owner is responsible for the safety of people on the property.

Under the legal doctrine of premises liability, business owners must do everything reasonably possible to ensure the safety and well being of their patrons. Unfortunately, there aren’t any laws you can look up that specify what’s reasonable and what’s not.

No two bar fight cases will be the same, and each state has its own version of premises liability laws. Winning personal injury claims against the bar where you were hurt rests on showing whether the bar owner did everything reasonably possible to protect patrons like you from harm.

It helps to understand some terms used by insurance companies and attorneys.

Liability means responsibility. If the bar is at fault, the bar owner will be liable for your damages.

Duty of Care: Bar and tavern owners have a duty of care to do everything reasonably possible to make sure their property is free of hazards, and their customers and employees are kept safe from undue harm and injury.

Knowledge: To win a liability claim you must show the bar owner or its employees knew or should have known there were hazardous conditions likely to cause injuries.

Breach of Duty: When the bar employees knew or should have known a dangerous condition existed, and failed to remove the danger, the bar owner breached their duty of care by failing to take appropriate action to protect you and others from undue harm.

Negligence: Breaching the bar owner’s duty of care is negligence.

Direct and Proximate Cause: The bar’s negligence becomes the direct and proximate cause of your bar fight injuries. This means there were no other factors, other than the bar’s negligence, which could have caused your injuries.

Damages: Bar fight damages typically include bills for medical treatment and physical therapy, out-of-pocket medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Bar customers 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 owner isn’t automatically responsible for every injury that happens on their property.

For the bar owner to be liable, the owner must be able to foresee a potential injury could happen. This means the circumstance that causes an injury is one that a prudent bar owner in a similar location knows or should know is dangerous.

Unless you can prove the bar employees knew or should have known that someone could get hurt, and did nothing about it, you won’t have a strong claim against the bar.

Case Summary: Bar not liable for head injury

Jonathan Lloyd and his friend Cecil George were at a New Jersey bar called the Harem. George was already intoxicated when Lloyd saw George fighting with another bar patron.

The Harem’s bouncers broke up the fight and escorted George and the other fighter out of the bar to the parking lot. Lloyd followed them out. After they were all outside, the bouncers stood near the bar’s entrance.

Lloyd was standing near his friend George in the parking lot when he saw the other fighter rushing toward George. Lloyd stepped in between George and the person coming at George to “put himself as a barrier” between the two.

As Lloyd later testified, “Everything happened quickly.” Lloyd woke up in the hospital four days later, having suffered a serious head injury.

Lloyd filed a lawsuit against the bar for not protecting him. The Harem argued they could not have foreseen Lloyd voluntarily stepping into the middle of a fight.

The court agreed with the bar, ruling that “it was not foreseeable that [Lloyd] would be in any danger outside” and “it could not be reasonably foreseen” that Lloyd would intercede in the altercation.

Lloyd lost his case. He appealed to a higher court that confirmed the bar was not liable for Lloyd’s injuries.

Owner’s Duty to Prevent Bar Fights

A prudent bar owner should have enough bouncers or other security personnel in place to prevent bar fights and stop any altercations that do break out.

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 fights, resulting in unnecessary injuries not only to the participants but to innocent bystanders as well.

Bouncers are only supposed to use force equal to the aggressive bar patron’s, and no more.

Example: Bystander injured by an aggressive bouncer

Bouncers had to forcibly remove Jack from a bar after he started a fight with another customer. Jack continued throwing punches at the bouncers, who roughly pinned his arms back and threw him out of the bar.

The bouncers were equally rough with Jack’s friends, including Rob, who had been cheering Jack on but didn’t participate in the fight. Rob’s shoulder was dislocated from being twisted, and his face was severely scraped and bloodied by gravel in the parking lot when the bouncers pushed him down to the ground.

The bouncers’ use of force against the Rob was excessive. Unlike Jack, Rob wasn’t fighting or resisting and was on his way to the door to leave when the bouncers turned to him.

The bar owner, as well as the individual bouncers, are liable for Rob’s damages, including his medical expenses, lost wages, and an amount for his pain and suffering.

Dram Shop Laws

Back in the day, liquor was sold in small amounts called drams, and any establishment that sold distilled liquor was a dram shop. The term dram shop is still used by lawmakers.

Under most states’ dram shop laws, a bar can be sometimes be held liable for serving alcohol to a person who ends up causing harm to themselves or someone else.

The person who files a dram shop claim or lawsuit against the bar is either a first party claimant or a third party claimant.

First Party Claims

First party claims are made by the person who was hurt while intoxicated. The person is blaming the bar for serving them too much alcohol. First party dram shop claims often only succeed if the person served was underage and shouldn’t have been legally served in any circumstance.

Some states don’t allow adults to bring first-party dram shop claims. In states that allow first-party claims, it’s very difficult to convince the insurance company or a jury that the bar owes you money because they served you alcohol until you got drunk and fell.

You’d have a much better chance of winning compensation with a slip and fall claim if you, although intoxicated, fell because the property owner failed to remove a hazard, like uneven flooring or torn carpeting.

Third Party Claims

Third party dram shop claims most often come up after a drunk driver hurts or kills someone. The injured party is claiming the drunk driver would not have hurt them if the bar hadn’t kept serving the person alcohol. The bar owner becomes the third party.

Similarly, if you’re watching the game with friends at a sports bar, and a drunken stranger physically assaults you because you cheered for your team, the bar may be liable if they continued to serve your attacker after he was already acting drunk and belligerent.

Successful dram shop claims depend on showing the bartender was reckless. Recklessness is going ahead and doing something that you knew could be unsafe or cause something bad to happen.

The bartender may be reckless when they:

  • Intentionally serve alcohol to a person
  • Know the person they’re serving is underage or already intoxicated
  • Decide to ignore the risk of serving someone who is likely to hurt themselves or others

Many states make it difficult to blame the bar unless there was deliberate intent by the server, for example knowingly serving alcohol to a minor. On the other hand, some states allow dram shop claims if the bartender knew they were serving a person who is addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Find out where you stand. If you believe you have a dram shop claim against a bar, contact a personal injury attorney to discuss the value of your injury claim.

Proving a Bar Fight Injury Claim

If you’re hurt because of a bar fight, whether as a participant or an innocent bystander, to succeed in your 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 burden is on you to gather good evidence to prove your claim. You’ll need enough evidence to convince the bar owner’s insurance company the owner breached their duty of care and their breach was the reason you were injured.

Identify the bar owner and report your injuries. Ask for the bar’s owner or manager. Get the 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 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.

Seek medical care. Never refuse or delay medical attention. If someone calls an ambulance, let the paramedics evaluate your injuries. You could have life-threatening head or internal injuries and not realize it. Adrenaline and shock can mask serious injuries.

If you aren’t taken directly to the hospital, have a medical exam as soon as possible. Failing to have prompt medical treatment can tank your injury claim. The insurance company will jump at the excuse to deny your claim by arguing your injuries didn’t happen at the bar.

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. Use your smartphone to photograph or video everything you can. Take pictures of the 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. Injuries like swelling and bruising may not appear right away, so continue to take pictures of your injuries throughout your recovery.

Check criminal records. It’s fairly easy to research a person’s criminal background. Look for arrest and conviction 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 tendency to lie about the underlying facts of the fight.

Gather proof of damages. Collect copies of your medical records. 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 verifying the dates of your absence and the amount of wages you lost.

Shared Responsibility for a Bar Fight

In most states, you have a right to compensation for your injuries, even when you share some of the blame for the circumstances leading up to the bar fight.

Contributory negligence rules can kill injury claims in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. If the bar’s insurance company thinks you’re so much as one percent to blame for your injuries, they’ll use a pure contributory negligence argument to deny your claim.

Comparative negligence or modified comparative negligence is used in most states.

Under pure comparative negligence rules, you have the right to pursue an injury claim even if you’re the one most at fault for the fight.

In modified comparative fault states, you may not be eligible to recover any compensation if you are equally to blame (called the 50% rule) or more to blame (called the 51% rule) for causing the fight or contributing to your injuries.

Don’t take no for an answer. If you don’t agree with the insurance company’s decision about blame, contact a personal injury attorney to discuss your options.

Attorneys Can Boost Compensation

You probably won’t need an attorney to negotiate a fair settlement amount for minor injury claims. If you’ve recovered from scrapes, bruises, and muscle or tendon strains, you can deal directly with the insurance company.

It’s vital you don’t say anything that tends to show you contributed to your injuries. Avoid statements like “Well, I was pretty drunk,” or “I was cussing 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. No-fault insurance won’t cover your pain and suffering, but you won’t have to prove the bar was negligent.

Figure out a fair settlement amount by totaling the cost of your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, the value of ruined items like clothes or eyeglasses, and lost wages. Add one or two times that amount for pain and suffering.

Send your demand letter with copies of all your bills, receipts, and any other evidence you’ve collected.

We’ve made it easy with our sample Bar Injury Demand Letter.

You’ll need a skilled attorney to get anywhere near fair compensation for serious injuries or complicated claims.

Bar fights can result in serious injuries like brain trauma, spinal cord injuries, broken jaw or other bones, internal bleeding, and other “hard” injuries.

Hard injuries are expensive insurance claims. The insurance company and their team of lawyers will pull out all the stops to avoid paying large settlements to claimants like you.

An attorney will help you get the compensation you deserve for:

  • Dram shop claims and lawsuits
  • Assault injuries caused by bouncers or other bar customers
  • Claims against multiple parties
  • Wrongful death claims

There’s too much to lose by trying to handle a complicated injury claim on your own. It costs nothing to find out what an experienced personal injury attorney can do for you.

Bar Fight Injury Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>