Commercial Host Liability: Can your Establishment be held liable for a Bar Fight?

I worked behind a busy bar for a large part of my twenties, and while I saw some pretty crazy stuff, I was fortunate not to encounter any serious violence while on the job. Though I dealt with police and liquor inspectors from time-to-time, it was never the result of a bar fight.

But what happens when a bar fight does occur in your establishment and someone gets seriously hurt? Can the establishment be sued? Will the establishment be held liable for the patron’s injuries?

In a recent case out of Edmonton, Harding v. Hudsons Canadian Hospitality Ltd., the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta addressed such a scenario in an application for summary judgment.

In Harding the plaintiff Matthew Harding was injured while out with friends at the Hudsons Canadian Taphouse located in the West Edmonton Mall.  Mr. Harding, who worked in bar security, was out with a small group of friends. Prior to the assault he observed a group of eight people standing near the bar who were engaging in anti-social behaviour such as yelling at other patrons, and blocking access to the bar. He notified the doorman that he was concerned that this type of behaviour could easily escalate – but he did not ask that the group be removed.

The assault itself happened without warning. Out of the blue one young man from the group by the bar approached Mr. Harding to ask if he “had a problem?” After replying that he did not have a problem, Mr. Harding was struck with a single blow from a bottle by an unseen assailant. The security staff reacted quickly as soon as the assault occurred.

Harding’s claim against Hudsons rested on two causes of action: negligence and occupiers liability.

In his statement of claim Harding alleged that Hudsons:

  • had insufficient staff and security;
  • failed to train their security staff adequately; and
  • that there was inadequate surveillance in the bar when the assault occurred.

The Court concluded, and Hudsons admitted, that the bar owed Harding a duty of care. However the Court found that there was no indication that Hudsons was in breach of that duty of care – the incident was simply a “spontaneous patron on patron assault in a bar.” In this case the harm came from the unknown assailant. Importantly, there was no evidence of anything to cause Hudsons to foresee any risk of an assault to Harding.

In dismissing Harding’s claim, the Court found that:

  • there was no evidence that the staffing level that night at the Hudsons Canadian Taphouse was insufficient;
  • that further or different staff training could have prevented the assault or lessened the severity of Mr. Harding’s injuries;
  • that the nine surveillance cameras in operation at the time of the assault were sufficient for security purposes; and
  • that there was no conclusive evidence that the assailant, or the group he was with, were intoxicated.

Having not found evidence that Hudsons breached the standard of care it owed to Harding, or that any breach caused Harding’s injuries, the Court dismissed Harding’s claim before trial.

Though Hudsons Canadian Taphouse escaped tort liability in Harding, like all cases that decision was based on the specific evidence (or lack thereof) before the Court. Had the evidence been that the assailant was intoxicated, or that the security staff were too slow to react, the result could have been much different. Licensees should also keep in mind that while Hudsons escaped tort liability in Harding it may have faced regulatory consequences in a separate proceeding with the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission.

For licensees Harding should be seen as a reminder of the importance of having the proper staffing, security and surveillance systems in place. Not only will such efforts result in a safer work environment and customer experience, but they will also assist you should you have ever to demonstrate that your establishment meets the standard of care owed to all its patrons.

If you are concerned about the risks of occupiers liability, or commercial host liability, you should discuss those concerns with counsel experienced in that area.

*Alcohol & Advocacy publishes articles for information purposes only. They are not a substitute for legal advice, and persons requiring such advice should consult legal counsel.

Dan Coles
Retired bartender. Young lawyer. From the East, living in the West. Interested in British Columbia's producers and purveyors of wine, beer and spirits.

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