Bar liability extends beyond the tavern threshold.
Lots of guys have walked into bars with nothing but the best intentions – have a few drinks; watch a game; shoot a little pool – when some buffoon with a bad case of beer muscles starts trouble. I was recently hired by a young guy who was badly injured after a bar fight that may have started in the bar and resumed outside in the parking lot. Still investigating the facts, and who knows where the investigation will lead[bar fight cases always have several different versions of reality]. But one thing is certain – my client was badly injured in the parking lot, walking to his car when he got blindsided by some clown and suffered a bad injury. But he was in the parking lot, not the bar. So the bar owner isn’t responsible, right? Wrong.
In Illinois, generally a land owner/operator doesn’t have a duty to protect people from criminal activity of third parties. But there are exceptions – including the “business invitee” exception. The “business invitee exception” provides that certain businesses, including bars, have a duty to protect patrons against criminal acts that are “reasonably foreseeable”. TheOsborne v. Stages case does a pretty good job of explaining the relevant law. In that case, a Linda Osborne and some friends went to see a band at a bar known as Cabaret Metro[“Metro”] located on Clark Street in Chicago. Immediately adjacent to the Metro is another bar known as the Smart Bar. The two bars are owned by the same entity[Stages Music Hall, Inc, or “Stages”] and share a hallway. One set of stairs leads to Metro, while another stairway leads to Smart Bar. Although both bars have separate entrances, the entrances are very close and both bars essentially share the same stretch of public sidewalk.
Some underage individuals[referred to as “bust-outs”] finagled their way into Smart Bar while Osborne and her friends were at Metro. The bust-outs drank and started trouble at Smart Bar and were forcibly ejected onto the sidewalk in front of the bar. The bust-outs remained on the sidewalk banging on the doors and swearing at the bouncers. By their own admission, the bust-outs hadn’t had enough – they were trying to goad the bouncers to come outside. The bouncers ignored them. Shortly after the bust-outs were ejected, Ms. Osborne and another female were leaving Metro. They had no idea what had taken place with the bust-outs or that that the bust-outs had been booted from the bar. Ms. Osborne’s friend was hassled by one of the bust-outs and Ms. Osborne went to help. At that moment, the other bust-out kicked Osborne it the face, breaking her jaw in multiple places, necessitating surgery and the placement of several plates in her jaw.
Osborne sued the Stages for its failure to protect patrons from criminal activity right outside the entrance. At trial however, Stages argued in part, that as the incident had taken place outside the bar, on the public sidewalk, it didn’t have any responsibility to protect Osborne. Additionally, Stages argued that the attack wasn’t foreseeable. The trial court granted a directed verdict for the bar owner.
Osborne appealed. The Appellate Court, in a well-written opinion, first had to determine if Stages owed Osborne any duty at all – as she was technically off premises. The Court acknowledged that some Illinois cases essentially say that once the patron leaves the bar, the bar is off the hook. The Appellate Court however, wisely declined to be that short-sighted. The Court recognized it would be foolish to hold that a bar owner’s duty to its patrons stops at the front door – especially where lots of taverns use public sidewalks to control who gets in and out. The Appellate Court determined that Stages did indeed have a duty to Osborne – even if she had left the bar.
Having decided that Stages did indeed have a duty to protect Osborne, the next issue was whether the attack was foreseeable. And that wasn’t a tough one either. As the opinion noted, the bar was aware that there were two “intoxicated, angry and combative” men right outside the bar. And the bouncers knew 1) there had already been one nasty confrontation with the bust-outs inside the Smart Bar and 2) the bust-outs wished to renew hostilities outside. The opinion noted that the bouncers threw angry drunken bust-outs onto the sidewalk and ignored them. And shortly thereafter, directed two young women into their path. Common sense dictates those young women were put at risk.
The Appellate Court correctly tossed the lower’s verdict and remanded the case for a new trial.
So that is the law that applies in Illinois. Now begins the always-fascinating journey of learning exactly what happened in a bar late at night.