When a restaurant owner is held responsible for a bar patron’s injury or death, it’s usually because the bar served him or her too much alcohol. But what happened in Mueller v Brannigan Brothers Restaurants & Taverns, LLC, is more like something out of a movie. This published Michigan Court of Appeals decision asked whether the restaurant could be held responsible when its employees (or former employees) chased down a bar patron and beat him to death. The question was closer than you might think.
Bar Patron Beaten to Death on New Year’s Morning
New Year’s Eve 2012 at Brannigan Brothers Restaurants and Taverns, LLC (Brannigan) in Lansing must have been quite the raucous party. Just after the ball dropped, Brannigan had to fire a bouncer named Suttle. By 2:00 a.m., Suttle was back, and Travis Peterson, one of the bar patrons, had been beaten to death. In the wrongful death lawsuit a year later, it was up to the jury to decide if the restaurant owner was responsible for any of it.
Restaurant Security and Vicarious Liability
Bars and restaurants can sometimes be responsible for injuries caused by their staff on the premises. Called “vicarious liability”, this personal injury claim says that the person or company in charge of an employee is responsible for that person’s actions as long as they are “committed in the course and within the scope of the employee’s employment.” For example, if a restaurant hires a cleaning staff to mop the floor, and the staff member forgets to put up a sign warning the floor is wet, a person who slips and falls on the wet floor can sue the restaurant, not just the custodian.
But Mueller wasn’t nearly so straight forward. Brannigan had at least 4 bouncers or security staff involved in the incident:
- Suttle, who was fired that night, but had come back on premises
- Kanaveh who was not working that night but was on site anyway
- McClain who may have been assaulted by Peterson
- Smith who rushed to protect McClain and break up the fight
It appeared after the trial that Suttle had been 80% liable and had most likely caused the fatal injury by beating Peterson with a baton, causing a skull fracture that put him in a coma and eventually killed him. Since Suttle was “off the clock”, the court said the restaurant wasn’t vicariously liable for the bar patron’s death.
Negligent Hire, Supervision, or Training
Peterson’s family claimed Brannigan was responsible for hiring Suttle in the first place. The restaurant could have been found responsible if it had negligently hired employees it could reasonably predict would cause the kind of harm that had happened.
Suttle had previously pleaded no-contest to manslaughter charges as a teenager. But the court said that employers are not generally expected to anticipate criminal acts. The court said, “the nature of the offense does not seem to easily lend itself to predicting the kind of pursuit and assault that occurred here, especially given the well-known propensity for teenagers to engage in dubious conduct they regret as adults.”
When it came to negligent training or supervision, 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.”
Courts don’t like holding employers responsible for their employees’ actions. If you have been hurt because of a business’s negligence, it is important it is to have a personal injury attorney with decades of experience to help you establish your vicarious liability claims. Otherwise, you may find yourself without the remedies you and your family need to recover from your loss.
Dani K. Liblang is a personal injury accident attorney at The Liblang Law Firm, P.C., in Birmingham, Michigan. She has decades of experience in personal injury and premises liability lawsuits. If you have been severely injured on someone else’s property, contact The Liblang Law Firm, P.C., for a consultation.