Split justices rule for bar after fight left patron blind

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A split Indiana Supreme Court reversed Tuesday in a northern Indiana bar’s favor, finding the establishment did not owe a duty to a man who was blinded after bar fight took place in its parking lot.

As he was leaving Cavanaugh’s Sports Bar & Eatery one night, Eric Porterfield was left permanently blind after a fight broke out in the bar parking lot, prompting him to sue the eatery for negligence. Cavanaugh’s moved for summary judgment, arguing it owed Porterfield no duty because the incident was unforeseeable.

After the Lake Superior Court denied the bar’s motion, the Indiana Court of Appeals, in an interlocutory appeal, affirmed. 

The case of Cavanaugh’s Sports Bar & Eatery, Ltd. v. Eric Porterfield, 20S-CT-88 then divided Indiana Supreme Court justices in a split decision that ultimately reversed and remanded in the bar’s favor.

Writing for the majority, Justice Mark Massa cited Rogers v. Martin, 63 N.E.3d 316, 325 (Ind. 2016), and Goodwin v. Yeakle’s Sports Bar & Grill, Inc., 62 N.E.3d 384, 390 (Ind. 2016),  noting that “(w)hen evaluating the broad class of plaintiff and broad type of harm in these cases, we acknowledged a key factor is whether the landowners knew or had reason to know about any present and specific circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to recognize the probability or likelihood of imminent harm.”

“In the years since Goodwin and Rogers, courts have thoughtfully applied this framework, finding duty only when landowners had this contemporaneous knowledge,” the majority, including Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, held. “… But without notice of present and specific circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to recognize the risk of an imminent criminal act, our Court of Appeals has consistently held since Goodwin and Rogers — until now — that landowners cannot foresee these sudden attacks.”

Thus, the majority found Cavanaugh’s had no reason to foresee that a bar patron would blind another patron during a sudden and “without warning” fight in its parking lot. Unlike the cases where courts have found a duty when a landowner knew or should have known about likely looming harm, the majority concluded Porterfield did not show that Cavanaugh’s had any reason to believe the fight would occur.

Additionally, it found Porterfield improperly substituted evidence of the bar’s past raucousness for contemporaneous knowledge of imminent harm by pointing to police runs made to the bar during the year before the fight.

“Because we hold that the criminal attack at issue here was unforeseeable, the duty of Cavanaugh’s to protect Porterfield did not extend to this particular scenario,” the majority concluded. “We reverse and remand with instructions for the trial court to enter summary judgment for Cavanaugh’s.”

Dissenting in a separate opinion joined by Justice Steven David, Justice Christopher Goff argued he would resolve the case differently by “focusing on the general, common-sense nature of this foreseeability inquiry … .”

Goff said the majority’s opinion added new requirements to the foreseeability inquiry, elevating the standard to impose a duty by requiring contemporaneous evidence of imminent harm. He also said the majority focused on the particular facts of the case, contrary to the standard provided by precedent.

“By raising the bar for finding a duty, the majority’s opinion will lead to summary judgments in close cases, impeding Hoosiers’ right to a trial. And by focusing on the facts in determining whether a duty exists, the majority takes from the factfinder at trial the ability to consider and weigh facts,” Goff opined.

The dissenting judge thus stated he would hold that Cavanaugh’s owed a duty to protect Porterfield from the foreseeable fight and affirm the trial court’s denial of the summary judgment motion.

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