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Is The Bar Owner Responsible When Patrons “Take It Outside?”

Maybe there have been too many movies about fights that start in a bar until the patrons decide to “take it outside”. The Michigan Court of Appeals recently had to address the question of whether a bar owner was responsible when patrons and bouncers got into a fight off-premises that left one person dead.

A New Year’s Party, A Fired Bouncer, And A Fatal Beating

The facts in Mueller v Brannigan Brothers Restaurants & Taverns, LLC, are stranger than fiction. Brannigan Brothers Restaurants and Taverns, LLC (Branningan), in Lansing, Michigan hosted a New Year’s in 2012. Shortly after midnight, the bar owner fired a bouncer named Suttle. He came back two hours later, supposedly to pick up his pay for the night.

Around 2:00 a.m. Suttle confronted bar patron Travis Peterson. The two took the matter outside, which resulted in a foot chase and Suttle beating Peterson to death with a baton. Suttle was convicted of second degree murder. In a wrongful death lawsuit the next year, Peterson’s family asked the jury to decide if the bar owner could be held responsible for the conduct of its bouncers.

Is A Bar Owner Responsible For Bouncers’ Criminal Acts?

Under a legal theory called “vicarious liability”, a bar owner or business can sometimes be held legally responsible for personal injuries caused by its employees. Normally, a business owner is safe to assume his or her employees won’t commit crimes on the clock. To establish a vicarious liability claim, the injured person (or in this case his family) must demonstrate that the actions were “committed in the course and within the scope of the employee’s employment.”

“In the Course of Employment”

Vicarious liability only applies to things done at work. Even though the family brought claims against four current and former employees of Brannigan involved in the conflict, they weren’t all working at the time. Smith and McClain were serving as bouncers at the time of the fight, but Kanaveh was there on his day off and Suttle had been fired a few hours earlier. The Court said that Brannigan could only be responsible for the employees working at the time, so whatever Kanaveh and Suttle did, it wasn’t the bar owner’s responsibility.

The jury found Suttle 80% responsible for the wrongful death and said Peterson was 20% responsible for his own personal injuries. That didn’t leave any liability to assign to the on-shift employees of the bar, and no room for a vicarious liability claim.

Foreseeable Criminal Acts “In the Scope of Employment”

The court went on to consider whether Brannigan was negligent for hiring the bouncers in the first place. It is true that several of the employees had criminal histories – including Mr. Suttle. However, the court said, “a claim of negligent hiring or retention requires actual or constructive knowledge by the employer that would make the specific wrongful conduct perpetrated by an employee predictable.” In other words, it may be predictable for a person with a history of drunk driving to drink before acting as a valet, or a person with an assault charge to get physical while working as a bouncer. The court said that vicarious liability would not apply when an employee’s misconduct goes beyond what someone would expect from his or her previous behavior.

In response to the family’s claim that Brannigan’s should have trained its employees better, the court said:

“We accept for the sake of argument that Brannigan’s training and supervision were grossly incompetent or nonexistent. That would strongly suggest that sooner or later a patron was going to get hurt fighting with the staff on-site or while being removed from the premises. That would still not predict security staff chasing an ejected patron down the street and beating him fatally. Such outrageous conduct and loss of self-control is such a radical departure from expected social norms that we very much doubt businesses commonly perceive a need to craft rules and training against that degree of blatantly obvious criminal misconduct.”

A bar owner can sometimes be held responsible when patrons and employees “take it outside”. However, establishing vicarious liability will depend on the specific details of the case, and what the employer should have known before the fight went down.

Contact Top Michigan Attorneys Today

The Cronin Law Firm has experienced attorneys to aid with whatever legal issue you’re facing. If you have been injured due to another person’s misconduct in Michigan, contact The Cronin Law Firm today to schedule a consultation.

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