Bars have responsibility to protect patrons 

Last week, I started answering a question posed by a reader who was assaulted by a bouncer outside a nightclub who, after his friend exchanged words with the bouncer, threw a punch that landed squarely on the reader who had done nothing besides try to keep the peace. This week, I expand to talk about what duty a bar owner owes a patron to protect them from being injured by others.

It is well-established that a bar owner’s special relationship with his customers imposes a duty on him to take reasonable measures to protect customers from imminent or ongoing criminal conduct or from others.

In a California appellate court case called Delgado, a husband and his wife were patrons at a bar when another male customer stared in a menacing way at the couple. The husband became uncomfortable and decided to leave. His wife told the bar that “there was going to be a fight.” The bar’s security saw the behavior, yet the bar did nothing and then, as feared, there was an assault.

The court held that the bar had a duty to exercise reasonable care and also recognized that “[s]uch measures may include telephoning the police or 911 for assistance.” The court held that a “special relationship” existed between the bar owners and their patrons such that a proprietor who serves intoxicating drinks to customers for consumption on the premises must “exercis[e] reasonable care to protect his patrons from injury at the hands of fellow guests.”

The court held that the bar owner owes such a duty under certain conditions such as: 1) allowing a person on the premises who has a known propensity for fighting; 2) allowing a person to remain on the premises whose conduct had become obstreperous and aggressive to such a degree the management knew or ought to have known he endangered others; 3) having been warned of danger from an obstreperous patron, failing to take suitable measures for the protection of others; 4) failing to stop a fight as soon as possible after it starts; 5) failing to provide a staff adequate to police the premises; and 6) tolerating disorderly conditions.

One example of where the court has found liability is a case where, male bar patron asked a woman to take him home so he could have sex with her. She rebuffed his advances. The man left but returned two hours later and again made improper advances. The woman reported the man’s offensive conduct to the bar’s bouncer, who had been within hearing distance of the comments. As the woman prepared to leave as the bar was closing, the bouncer warned her not to go outside because the “goofball” was in the parking lot. The woman ignored his warning, claiming she had to go home to prepare for work in the morning.

The man had apparently been waiting for the woman in the parking lot and attacked and stabbed her, causing serious injury. The California Supreme Court found that the bar’s warning alone was not enough saying, additionally, it had a duty to take affirmative action to control the wrongful acts of the male customer.

Other cases have involved bar owners who have failed to provide adequate security in parking lots at the establishment where people were known to hang out and drink alcohol bought elsewhere. In several of these cases, where a patron has been attacked and robbed, we have obtained the history of police calls to the address and have found a pattern of similar assaults, car break-ins and muggings. Records of police activity at a particular address can be obtained by making a California Public Records Act request to the applicable local police department.

Using this information, we have demonstrated a frequency and commonality of criminal activity establishing that the bar owners knew, or should have known, of the dangerous condition in the lot and that they failed to either illuminate the lot, employ security to patrol the area, install video surveillance or to call the police to have them roust the criminal element from the parking lot.

If you have suffered an assault at a nightclub or bar through no fault of your own, you should speak with a lawyer to determine if there is evidence of the owner’s negligence.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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