Some bars and nightclubs are quiet places where no one ever raises their voice and fights are unheard of, but others unfortunately are hotbeds for arguments and fights night after night. What if you are attacked in a bar or nightclub or what if you accidentally get hit by a fist or a thrown bottle? Who is liable? Is the bar or nightclub liable to you? How does premises liability law cover these situations? This article addresses these issues.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Assuming that you did not start the fight or that the fight was not an agreed upon fight (which the law calls “mutual affray”), the person who attacked you is going to be liable to you under intentional tort principles. However, because people who start fights in bars may not have any money or insurance, it may not be worth your while to sue your attacker for the assault, and you might want to focus your energy on suing the bar or nightclub.
A claim against a bar or nightclub for damages resulting from a fight or assault is a standard personal injury case, which means that it is a negligence case. The one exception is, as described above, if the fight was an agreed upon fight, or mutual affray, in which case the bar is generally not going to be negligent.
In order to win a case against a nightclub, you have to prove that the nightclub was negligent, and that its negligence was a cause of your injury. But how do you do that, assuming that it was another patron who assaulted you?
Claims against bars or nightclubs in fight cases usually involve an intoxicated assailant and so will usually involve the bar’s security and alcohol service policies. All bars have a duty to act reasonably to provide necessary security for their customers, and all bars have a duty not to serve intoxicated customers.
With respect to security, a bar must provide whatever security is reasonably necessary, based on the circumstances. A bar that caters primarily to senior citizens having a drink before attending the theater doesn't need any security. No one is going to start a fight in that type of bar. But a bar that is known (or notorious) for fights, arguments, and drug use in the bathrooms needs far stricter security measures. For example, reasonable security in such a bar might include things like serving drinks only in plastic cups (to prevent thrown bottles or bottles broken over someone’s head), having multiple bouncers, hiring an off-duty policeman to monitor the bar, and/or firmly securing the tables and chairs to the floor.
With respect to alcohol use, a bar or nightclub has a duty (under dram shop laws) to closely monitor its patrons to make sure that it does not serve alcohol to intoxicated customers. A dram shop law is the legal term for a law having to do with lawsuits arising out of injuries caused by people who bought alcoholic drinks at bars or restaurants. If someone gets drunk and attacks you at a bar or even on the street, you might have a dram shop case against that bar or nightclub.
If a bar violates a state or local law, that violation could lead to liability against the bar. If, for example, the bar serves underage customers, stays open after closing hours, or has a happy hour two-for-one drink special in a state that prohibits happy hours, those types of violations will help the injured patron in a lawsuit against the bar.
As in any personal injury case, there are things that you can do immediately after the incident that will help your case immensely, assuming you are in a condition to do them.
If you were attacked in a bar, you must report the incident to the management of the bar immediately. Although failure to immediately report the injury does not legally bar you from filing a claim or lawsuit, you should not wait. Insurers (and juries) often question the legitimacy of an accident claim that was not reported at least by the next day. You should also do your best to get the names and contact information of any witnesses to the fight or to your assailant’s behavior before the fight, i.e., how much was he drinking, etc. People may not want to cooperate, but witnesses can be critical in a bar fight case.