How One Bar Fight Could Cost You $1.5 Million in Damages

Damages a Bar Fight Can cost and Owner

Editor's Note: The Food & Beverage Insurance Agency (FNBIA) tells bar owners that liability in bar fights can be detrimental in so many unpredictable ways and that carrying bar insurance is their best bet to make sure they are protected in the event that an injury occurs on- premise.

When a patron gets injured in a bar fight, the owner may be found negligent and forced to pay damages under the legal doctrine of premises liability. This doctrine states that the owner must foresee the level of risk to patrons, legally known as invitees, and take precautions to minimize that risk. If the place gets customers who are prone to engage in violent behavior, or it is in a part of town where there is more assault and battery, owners need to make sure that their patrons are protected since the inherent risk of a bar fight is greater.

"What happens is the bar owner will go out and hire a bouncer, thinking he has the liability angle covered," explains Joe Thomas, account manager of FNBIA, a Houston bar insurance provider. "And then, the first time there is a fight, that bouncer will injure one of the friends of the guy who started it. That injured friend, who was basically just standing there, will be able to sue the bar for excessive force."

This is a bigger problem than people realize since so many bar fights erupt only after a bouncer is called in to escort a belligerent patron from the establishment.

"We see it all the time," Thomas says. "The drunk resists removal, and the bouncer ejects him with force. In the average case, the payouts may not be huge, but if you are unfortunate enough to have a few incidents like this, your business will suffer."

Thomas explains that bar fights present a complex liability issue. Establishments can be found responsible for damages when patrons get drunk and cause damage -- the typical dram shop case --and they have been sued for not intervening when the threat of violence is present. "The premises liability doctrine is always evolving," Thomas elaborates, "and some of those changes increase owner liability."

A good case in point is a bar fight case upheld by the Texas Supreme Court in 2010. A brawl started between members of a fraternity reunion and a wedding party at the Del Lago Resort in Lake Conroe after the two groups hurled threats and insults back and forth for close to an hour. The plaintiff, who was part of the fray, was thrown against a wall and had his skull fractured. The Court ruled that, because the resort bar knew a fight was likely to take place and did not call in security or stop serving drinks, they were liable for $1.5 million in damages.

This case opens the door for bar owners to be found responsible not only when they let patrons drink in excess but also when they serve alcohol to patrons who make threats -- regardless of whether they are drunk.

"A case like this should be an eye-opener for bar owners," Thomas says. "It shows how liability is a moving target. This plaintiff was actually one of the ones fighting. But because he hadn't been involved in the verbal threats, the Supreme Court upheld his right to collect damages, and it may have set a precedent for future cases that makes it harder for bar owners to avoid legal responsibility."

Because they cannot predict patron behavior or court rulings, the best way for bars to protect themselves in the event that someone is injured in a fight is to invest in adequate bar insurance. With a majority of establishments already not carrying any liquor liability insurance in Texas, the situation can really get costly fast.

"Ultimately, the amount of bar insurance Texas proprietors need to have depends on the level of risk they think their business can sustain," Thomas says. "Owners need to think carefully about what might happen. In addition to damages from civil actions, what about damage done to the establishment itself during a fight? That alone can end up taking a big bite out of the profit margin."

Bar and restaurant insurance that covers general liability as well as assault and battery and liquor liability is the best way for owners to stay solvent in the event that fighting breaks out in their place of business.

For more information, contact the Food & Beverage Insurance Agency, a leading provider of the bar insurance in Houston and the state of Texas.