Bar Liability For Bar Fights And Attacks

Bars are a place where many people are often gathered in the same area. Oftentimes they've been drinking, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. It's a recipe for trouble.  Bars face significant exposure for personal injuries or wrongful death caused by alcohol-related accidents involving cars, trucksmotorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, trains and railroad crossings, and boats. But that's not bars' only potential liability.  They can also face premises liability claims for attacks or fights that occur on their property, even if the attack or fight is not alcohol-related.

A bar can be liable under Iowa's dram shop law if it over serves alcohol to a patron and that patron gets into a fight and hurts someone.  For that liability to attach it must be proved that the bar knew or should have known that the patron was intoxicated or knew or should have known that it was serving alcohol to the point that the patron would become intoxicated.  A bar “knew or should have known” that a patron would become intoxicated or was intoxicated if the bar's employees either had actual knowledge that the person served was intoxicated or that a reasonably observant person under the same or similar circumstances would have had knowledge that the patron was intoxicated.  A person is “intoxicated” when one or more of the following are true: (1) the person's reason or mental ability has been affected; (2) the person's judgment is impaired; (3) the person's emotions are visibly excited; and (4) the person has, to any extent, lost control of bodily actions or motions. 

Frequently, however, bars will argue that the alcohol served the patron did not "contribute" to the bar fight and the other patron's injuries.  In bar fight cases, the animosity between the people involved in the fight, and not anyone's intoxication, is often determined to be the true cause of the fight and any injuries.   The bar will not be liable under Iowa's dram shop law if that's the conclusion in court.

Now, that's not to say that a bar can't still be liable for fights or attacks on its property under other legal theories.  A common premises liability claim asserted against bars, which has nothing to do with alcohol, concerns inadequate security.  Bars, like any other business, have a duty to keep patrons safe.  That obligation extends to situations involving customers or just people in the bar who, for any reason, may be a danger to other customers.  So, using the bar fight example, a bar may be liable for negligence under a premises liability theory if its employees knew or should have known that a person on the property was acting aggressively and thus represented a clear danger that someone could get hurt by that person in a fight. 

Harley Erbe