Bar or Nightclub Liability for Fight Injuries

If you suffered an injury as a result of a fight in a bar, nightclub, tavern, pub, or similar establishment, you may have a legal claim against that business.

Reviewed by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Most bars and nightclubs are safe establishments where patrons, bouncers, and other employees rarely raise their voices and fights seldom occur. But the combination of conflict and alcohol can lead to problems. What happens if you get assaulted in a bar or nightclub? Or what about a situation where you're an innocent bystander who gets hurt when someone's errant fist or thrown bottle hits you? Who is liable for your injuries?

Who Can You Sue For Injuries Suffered In a Bar or Nightclub?

The first and most obvious potential defendant in a personal injury lawsuit for harm suffered in a bar or nightclub will be the person who injured you. Depending on the circumstances, liability might come through intentional tort principles (if the person hurt you on purpose) or under a negligence theory (if they hurt you accidentally; while they were fighting someone else, for example).

But in reality, it often doesn't make sense to sue the individual involved in the fight. That's because no insurance policy is going to cover the incident, and the person who hurt you might not have sufficient assets to pay any personal injury judgment you win against them in court. Instead, you might want to focus your energy on suing the establishment where the fight took place.

Suing a Bar, Nightclub, or Similar Establishment

A personal injury claim against a bar or nightclub for damages resulting from a fight or assault is usually based on negligence. (One major exception is when the fight was entered into voluntarily, which the law sometimes refers to as a "mutual affray;" in this situation, the establishment is generally not going to be liable under a negligence legal theory.)

In order to win a negligence case against the establishment, you have to prove that:

  • the nightclub or bar failed to meet a legal duty to keep patrons reasonably safe from certain foreseeable harm, and
  • that failure or breach of legal duty (negligence) was a cause of your injury.

But how do you do that, assuming that another patron assaulted you? There are several possibilities.

First, you can rely on dram shop laws. If someone becomes intoxicated and assaults you at a bar or even on the street, you might have a dram shop case against the establishment that served the person alcohol. These laws vary from state to state, but they impose a duty on a bar, nightclub, or other establishment that sells alcohol—requiring the entity and its employees to monitor patrons and not serve intoxicated customers.

Second, you can focus on the establishment's duty to provide reasonable and necessary security for its customers. This may be seen as a form of premises liability. But what's reasonably necessary depends on the circumstances.

A business that caters to people having a drink before attending the theater probably won't need much security, but a pub that has a reputation for fights and drug use in the bathrooms probably needs to take strict steps to avoid reasonably foreseeable problems, including:

  • serving drinks in plastic cups (no glasses that might serve as potential projectiles in a fight)
  • employing multiple bouncers
  • hiring an off-duty police officer to monitor the establishment, and
  • firmly securing the tables, chairs, and stools to the floor.

Third, the establishment may be in violation of a state or local law restricting the sale of alcohol, including statutes related to:

  • underage drinking
  • hours of operation, and
  • use of drink specials and enticements, like "happy hour" and "two-for ones".

If the nightclub or bar's violation of one of these laws contributes to a fight that causes an injury, that may help the plaintiff's case in a personal injury lawsuit.

What to Do If You're Involved In a Fight

As in any personal injury case, there are things that you can do immediately after the incident that will help your case immensely. The sooner you do these things, the better, but make sure you're in a condition to do so.

First, get proper medical attention. Not only is this important for your health and safety, but it can strengthen any case you decide to bring. It's a lot harder to convince a judge or jury about the severity of your injuries if you have no medical records to back up your claims, or if you waited several days to get checked out by a doctor. Learn more about how medical treatment affects a personal injury claim.

Second, notify the establishment's management about what happened. Some states' dram shop laws require you to do so within a certain period of time after an incident that caused you injury. Waiting to report the incident also makes it easier for insurance companies and juries to question the legitimacy of your claims.

Third, obtain names and contact information for any witnesses who might have information about what happened during and before the incident. Learn more about how witnesses can help a personal injury claim.

For information that's tailored to your situation after an injury suffered in a bar or nightclub, your best first step might be talking with a personal injury lawyer.

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