DES MOINES (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that a jury should decide whether a west-central Iowa bar is responsible for an injury a patron received during a fight in the establishment’s parking lot.
The case had been dismissed in December 2010 by a district court judge, but the Iowa Court of Appeals concluded it should go to trial. The State Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, agreed Friday the case should be heard by a jury, saying bar owners have a duty of reasonable care to protect patrons even from actions of a third party.
“While taverns are not insurers of patrons’ safety against third-person criminal attacks, various jurisdictions have explained taverns must make reasonable efforts to maintain order and supervise and control patrons,” the court said.
The case began in March 2009, when three men were drinking at Gutterz Bowl and Lounge in Guthrie Center. The bar owner made Curtis Hoyt leave after he started an argument with Curtis Knapp. In the parking lot, Knapp hit Hoyt on the head, knocking him out, court documents said.
Hoyt also suffered a compound leg fracture and continues to limp, said his attorney, Gary Dickey Jr. Hoyt sued the bar, claiming the owner was liable for his injuries.
Guthrie County District Court Judge Bradley McCall granted the bar’s motion in 2010 to dismiss the case, saying the owner couldn’t have foreseen the parking lot fight. Hoyt appealed.
The court said Friday that even though Hoyt had initiated the argument inside the bar, it does not dismiss the responsibility of the bar owner to act reasonably to protect its customers. The court said the bar owner, Rod Atkinson, could have called police when the men began to argue, escorted Hoyt to his car or made sure Knapp was not waiting for Hoyt in the parking lot.
“Regardless, the question of what reasonable care is required under these circumstances is for the jury,” the court said.
A dissenting opinion, written by Justice Thomas Waterman, said the evidence shows the bar owner acted reasonably by kicking out Hoyt when he started an argument with Knapp in the bar.
“What else should Gutterz have done? How was the bar negligent?” Waterman wrote.
“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. ... From Gutterz’s standpoint, the incident had been defused by Hoyt’s departure.”
The high court sent the case back to Guthrie County District Court for a trial to determine whether the bar owner exercised reasonable care and whether the establishment should be held liable for Hoyt’s injuries.
Atkinson declined to comment on the ruling. His attorney, Mark Wiedenfeld of Des Moines, said the court’s decision creates uncertainty for business owners who can still be sued even though they believe they’ve reasonably dealt with a problem.
“What they did here was perfectly reasonable, and yet the court said you could still be hauled into trial,” Wiedenfeld said.
“It makes it very difficult for not only bar owners but owners of any business where a problem arises on your premises, and you think you’ve dealt with it, but people later can second-guess you and make accusations.”
Dickey said the ruling doesn’t expand the responsibility of business owners but reinforces that they are responsible for foreseeable actions by others that cause injuries to others on their property.
“The idea that you can tell somebody to leave and that ends liability, that has been rejected,” he said.
Hoyt is seeking damages including money for medical bills, Dickey said.