Take It Outside: Club Not Responsible For Injuries When Fight Spilled Into Parking Lot

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Roadhouse (pd)You don't need to be James Dalton to know that bar fights are scary. (If you don't know who James Dalton is, however, you do need to go watch Road House.) Bar fights can also create legal problems for bar owners. For example, do bar owners have a duty to keep their patrons safe from harm caused by fights? In Lloyd v. Underpass Enterprises, Inc. t/a The Harem, the Appellate Division dealt with this issue in the context of a somewhat unusual situation — a fight between two people that started in the club but ended up outside the club, and injured an individual who was not one of the combatants.

In Lloyd, plaintiff was playing "poker tournament style" in a hotel room with some co-workers, including Cecil George. After the game, they decided to visit a gentleman's club. George invited a friend, who had not been at the poker game, to join them at the club. About an hour after arriving, plaintiff saw George fighting with someone who "may have been" the friend George invited to the club. The club's bouncers broke up the fight, "escorted George and the other combatant outside to the parking lot," and then waited near the club's entrance. Plaintiff followed them out. The Appellate Division described what happened next:

[Plaintiff] was standing near George when he saw the other combatant rushing quickly, looking "menacing and  coming  at  [them] with  intent." [Plaintiff] stepped in between George and the person  rushing at them to "put  [him]self  as  a  barrier  between  [the other combatant] and [George]." [Plaintiff] stated  "[e]verything  happened  quickly." He awoke four days later in the hospital, having sustained a serious head injury.

Plaintiff sued the club. The club moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted its motion. Plaintiff appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision.

The trial court held that the club had no duty to plaintiff because the incident was not foreseeable. Specifically, the court held that "it was not foreseeable that a third party, not in any way involved in the fight inside would voluntarily leave and put himself in between the two formerly fighting patrons." Therefore, even if the club had a general duty to protect its patrons, that duty did not "continue" to an unforeseeable situation where a patron placed "himself in harm's way voluntarily." 

On appeal, plaintiff argued that the club had "actual knowledge of a dangerous condition based on the fight between two patrons inside the club," and thus had a duty to protect him from a known danger. The Appellate Division disagreed. It held that, "[Defendant] was not involved in the fight and simply decided to step in to help a friend." It further held that "[t]here was no evidence of prior similar  incidents, that the fight would continue outside, or that the [club] was familiar with the combatant," therefore it was not foreseeable that defendant would have been in any danger outside. Like the trial court, the Appellate Division noted that plaintiff put himself in harm's way voluntarily, by "decid[ing] to shield one person from another."

In its opinion, the Appellate Division distinguished the facts of Lloyd from the facts of a similar case, Cassanello v. Luddy. In that case, plaintiff was approached by two rowdy, drunk patrons while inside a bar. While they did not fight, the bouncer did have to separate the two men from plaintiff. After plaintiff left, the two followed him out, trailed by the bouncer, and accosted plaintiff again, eventually attacking him with an "axe hammer." Plaintiff sued the bar. In seeking to avoid liability, the bar argued that "its legal duty to the plaintiff ended once the plaintiff left the tavern." The trial court disagreed, holding that, because of the incident inside the bar involving plaintiff and the two patrons, it was foreseeable that the two patrons might seek to do harm to plaintiff when he left the bar. While the exact incident may not have been foreseeable, it was foreseeable that something like it would happen, therefore the bar had a duty to protect plaintiff.

This was not the case in Lloyd, where plaintiff was not involved in the fight inside the bar and instead, according to the court, voluntarily put himself in harm's way when the fight moved outside. Accordingly, plaintiff could not hold the club liable for his injuries.

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