Who Should be Responsible for Bar Fights that Hurt Others?

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against hip-hop artists Chris Brown and Drake for starting the massive bar fight that resulted in injuries to numerous bar patrons, who needed emergency treatment, stitches, and other treatment from glass-related injuries.  Because the members of each entourage got involved, an ordinary bar fight turned into a massive brawl in which 300+ lb. 6’5″ men were  “throwing highball glasses laden with alcohol, shattering the handles of bottles of spirits to use as makeshift knives and even throwing full bottles at each other.” Within seconds, the club was “full of flying glass shrapnel.”

The Brown/Drake fight raises questions that come up often in nightlife-rich cities like New York or LA.  When patrons are injured at a bar fight, who is (or should be) responsible?

Suing the Bar. It is true that bar owners have duties (called “duties of reasonable care”) to protect their patrons from attacks by third parties by taking measures to mitigate risks of injury, if they become known.  Hence the reason why troublesome patrons are often quickly booted out of clubs and bars by a small army of beefy security guards.  But the bar has to have some idea that there is a present danger before they can be held responsible for failing to protect patrons from it.   It isn’t possible for bar/club or any business owner to protect everyone in an establishment from each and every single potential risk that could possibly occur.  Their liability is limited to what is and would be “reasonable” under all circumstances.

Dram Shop Laws.  There is not only the issue of whether bars adequately protect their patrons, but whether they served too much alcohol to the unruly perpetrators (known as “dram shop” laws).  These kinds of claims can be hard to prove, because they require some knowledge on the part of the bar owners that they were serving visibly intoxicated patrons.  No bar wants to cut off clientele, much less celebrities or other high-profile clientele, but because it is fact-sensitive, these are facts that are often fleshed out during a lawsuit that is brought against the bar.  In California, alcohol-related accidents are regarded as being caused by the consumption and not the sale of alcohol. As a result, a bar or club that sells alcohol is generally not liable for damage that occurs as a result of that person’s intoxication, even if the bar or club knows the patron was visibly drunk at the time.

Suing those Involved in the Fight.  Although the perps who actually started the bar fight and injured others are the most culpable for injuries, in many cases, they are not sued or not the primary focus of the suit. Why? It’s almost always an issue of collectibility.  The best defendants for lawsuits are often those with sizeable and liquid assets from which a settlement or judgment can be paid.   Unless they are high-profile individuals, celebrities, athletes, or other high net-worth individuals, ordinary individuals who start or are involved in bar fights often do not have access to hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the kinds of injuries and medical treatment that are needed by those seriously hurt.  This means that if they are sued, at the end of a long lawsuit and trial, it will be very difficult to actually collect on the judgment from them, making it somewhat purposeless to have spent so much time, money, efforts, and resources chasing after them.

The benefit of getting a lawyer involved is obvious – based on the exact facts of the situation, the victim and lawyer can determine the best path to pursue.