Iowa Supreme Court splits 4-3 in bar-fight case

By: Administrator on April 5th, 2013

By Ryan Koopmans

Bar Patron A taunts Bar Patron B, but B doesn’t respond in kind.  The bar owner, wanting to avoid a fight, kicks A out of the bar, but B, who had remained calm during this entire time, goes out to the parking lot and assaults A.  Is the bar liable to A (the initial aggressor) for his injuries?  Maybe, according to a four-justice majority of the Iowa Supreme Court.

That’s the ruling today in Hoyt v. Gutterz Bowl and Lounge L.L.C. In the spring of 2009, Curtis Hoyt and his coworkers stopped at Gutterz, the local bowling alley in Guthrie Center, Iowa for an after-work beer.  A few beers into his visit, Hoyt and his coworker, Chris Brittain, began taunting another patron, Curtis Knapp.  Apparently there was some bad blood between Hoyt and Knapp; something about Knapp disrespecting someone’s sister.

The bartender–who had no knowledge of the bad blood– interjected, telling Hoyt that he was going to be “cut off” if the taunting continued.  Hoyt didn’t stop, and Gutterz’s owner ultimately kicked him out. During that entire time, Knapp stayed calm; he didn’t raise his voice or otherwise respond to Hoyt’s taunts.  But Knapp couldn’t take it anymore. Soon after the bartender kicked Hoyt out of the bowling alley, Knapp also left.  He encountered Hoyt in the parking lot and assaulted him.

So Hoyt (the initial aggressor) is suing the bowling alley.  Why?  Well, according to Hoyt, the bowling alley employees should have done more to protect him from himself.  Hoyt argues that when he acted inappropriately, the bartender should have called the police (on him, apparently).   Or, at the very least, the bowling alley employees should have made certain that he (Hoyt) got into his car and left.

That argument didn’t work in the district court.  The bowling alley filed for summary judgment, and the judge granted the motion, saying that the bowling alley had done all it needed to do: It ejected Hoyt (the misbehaving party), and there was no reason to believe that Knapp (the innocent party) would assault Hoyt in the parking lot.

By a vote of 4-3, a majority of the Iowa Supreme Court disagreed with that ruling.  Justice Hecht, joined by Justices Wiggins, Appel, and Zager, concluded that, given the “general tenor of bar behavior” and the bar owner’s worry that a fight might break out (that’s why he ordered Hoyt to leave), “a reasonable person might find the risk of harm to Hoyt foreseeable,” and thus a reasonable jury may very well find that the bowling alley must pay Hoyt for his injuries.

Justice Waterman dissented, joined by Chief Justice Cady and Justice Mansfield.  They, like the district court, agreed that the bowling alley could not be found responsible for Hoyt’s injuries:

Having kicked out the troublemakers—Hoyt and his companion—what else should Guttzerz have done? How was the bar negligent? The majority concludes a jury could find Gutterz negligent for failing to call the police. But, no crime had (yet) been committed, and Hoyt exited the bar when told to leave. Knapp was not threatening anyone or misbehaving in any way. At that point, why call the police? From Gutterz’s standpoint, the incident had been defused by Hoyt’s departure. The majority also argues Atkinson should have done more to ensure Hoyt left the parking lot safely. This theory assumes Atkinson reasonably should have foreseen Knapp would attack Hoyt. Knapp had not so much as even raised his voice. The majority fails to cite a single case from any jurisdiction supporting a property owner’s liability for a third-party assault under equivalent facts.

Justice Waterman concludes with this: “It is an ‘excessive precaution’ to require [Gutterz’s owner] to call the police after he ejected Hoyt or to guard Hoyt outside until he left unharmed when there were only two employees working at Gutterz that afternoon, and Knapp had given no sign of trouble.”

So what are the takeaways from the Hoyt decision?  For bar and restaurant owners: It’s not enough to kick out an aggressive bar patron; unless you want to pay the cost of litigation and a full trial, your employees should call the police every time one patron taunts another, or, at the very least, they should personally escort every trash-talker to his car.

The takeaway for police departments: You’re going to need more officers.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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