Appellate court: Bar owed duty to patron injured in parking lot fight

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A Lake County sports bar should have contemplated that rowdy behavior might take place outside the facility at closing time, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, finding the bar failed to prove it had no duty to protect a patron who was seriously injured in such a fight.

Eric Porterfield ended up seriously injured in a fight outside of Cavanaugh’s Sports Bar & Eatery, Ltd. in Lake County after his friend, who had been drinking that night, aimed a comment toward a woman nearby as patrons were ushered outside at closing time. Her boyfriend and his friends took offense to the remark, and an altercation ensued between the men, Porterfield and his friend.

Porterfield walked away with a serious eye injury and subsequently filed a personal injury action against Cavanaugh’s, claiming it was negligent in failing to take reasonable care for his safety as an invitee and patron. The bar filed a motion for summary judgment several years later, claiming that as a matter of law, it owed no duty to protect Porterfield.

In opposition, Porterfield submitted exhibits showing local police had made five runs to Cavanaugh’s during the 11 months preceding his incident, all involving fights that occurred outside the bar shortly after closing time. The Lake Superior Court denied Cavanaugh’s summary judgment motion, but noted it did not consider the police reports in its decision. Thus, the court determined bar’s motion to strike the exhibits was moot.

In an interlocutory appeal, Cavanaugh’s argued the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment, claiming it owed no duty as a matter of law to protect Porterfield against an after-hours criminal assault in its parking lot. But the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding Goodwin v. Yeakle’s Sports Bar & Grill, Inc., 62 N.E.3d 384, 386 (Ind. 2016), which the bar relied on, was similar, but not in the manner of the attacks in each case.

Goodwin involved the sudden shooting of bar patrons by another patron inside the bar. This case involves a fistfight between bar patrons in the parking lot just after closing. We believe that the distinction between a shooting and a fistfight is pivotal when examining foreseeability within the context of duty,” Judge Terry Crone wrote for the unanimous panel.

The panel noted that although no evidence was designated to indicate Cavanaugh’s had express notice concerning tensions between Porterfield and the perpetrators, evidence did show the altercation happened immediately after bar closed.  

“We believe that parking lot fistfights at closing time are generally within the type of ‘rowdy behavior’ that bar owners should contemplate, and that, in particular, Cavanaugh’s history of reported incidents gave it reason to contemplate further such incidents in its own parking lot,” Crone continued.

“To say that a bar owner’s duty to protect its patrons extends only to herding them through the exits at closing time is to essentially immunize the bar owner for violence that ensues between patrons immediately thereafter in its parking lot. We do not believe that the Goodwin court intended so broad a sweep of the pendulum, especially where the bar has a documented history of similar incidents on its grounds.”

The appellate panel added that the trier of fact will determine whether Cavanaugh’s breached its duty to Porterfield, but that the bar did fail to establish as a matter of law that it owed no duty to protect him in Cavanaugh's Sports Bar & Eatery, Ltd. v. Eric Porterfield, 18A-CT-1814.

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