Nightclubs and their employees may be liable for injuries sustained by patrons in the event a fight breaks out. Here’s the lowdown.

By David Hakimfar

Los Angeles locals and tourists have a seemingly never ending playground of nightlife choices at their disposal. Maybe your scene is the sweaty dance floors or grittier watering holes of “Boystown” in West Hollywood. Perhaps you favor the celebrity it-spots in Hollywood with all of the hopeful wannabes hanging out on the wrong side of the velvet rope. Maybe you frequent the rock ‘n’ roll haunts of the Sunset Strip. You may instead like the laid back hipster vibe of Echo Park or Silver Lake. Whatever your inclination may be, it’s almost certain that there’s something out there to fill the need.

The prevailing common denominators in all of these options are likely people and alcohol. And sometimes the two just don’t mix very well. When inhibitions are lowered in public places where alcohol and sometimes other drugs are consumed, people often say and do things that they wouldn’t normally do. A simple misunderstanding between customers can quickly escalate into a potentially dangerous situation. Overzealous bartenders and bouncers may overreact and eject a patron using excessive bodily force. Frequently these altercations result in one or more victims being injured, sometimes seriously.

In fact, in July 2013, a jury awarded a patron of a Los Angeles-area bar $58 million dollars for severe injuries he sustained when an untrained security guard crushed his skull when the man tried to break up an altercation between the establishment’s bartender and his brother. The victim suffered permanent brain damage, can no longer speak, and will require medical care and living assistance for the rest of his life.

What Does the Law Say?

California law requires that nightclub and bar bouncers or other security personnel undergo training and be licensed as Proprietary Private Security Officer (also commonly known as a PSO). This program is administered by the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services. The training includes subjects such as alcohol service rules, regulations and alcohol service liability, fake ID recognition, conflict resolution, guidelines and regulations regarding the use of force and critical information about what a doorman/bouncer can and can not do when it comes to a citizen’s arrest and when the police should be involved. Quite often, nightclubs fail in providing adequately trained security by not complying with state law.

Despite what many people believe, bartenders, bouncers and nightclub security guards do not have carte blanche to eject patrons using whatever force they choose. A common misunderstanding is that bouncers can physically remove customers from the establishment by always using physical restraint or force. Generally speaking, they do not. The training guidelines state that a security guard should not touch a suspect except when they are protecting a citizen, protecting their employers’ property, person(s), or when necessary to use reasonable force in effecting an arrest. A security guard’s legal powers to arrest are no greater than those of any other private citizen.

As far as the law and courts are concerned in California, a bouncer can only¬†ask¬†someone to leave unless a crime has been committed. If the patron doesn’t comply, they should call the police to have him or her escorted off the premises. This doesn’t necessarily mean that if the employee “guides” the person out the door or places their hands on the person that they are guilty of some crime or can be sued in court for damages, but they have no more right to use physical force than any other citizen does. But if a customer starts a fight or throws a punch at them, they may rightly claim self-defense.

If you have been involved in a physical altercation with an employee of a bar or nightclub, you may have legal recourse. Beware, however, that they typically play the self-defense card. In many cases, other employees may back up their claims. If the bouncer or another person caused physical injuries and is found to be at fault, they may be liable for damages. The business may also be sued under what is known as premises liability, for which they should be insured.

Since these cases can be complicated and difficult to prove, it is important to talk with an attorney experienced in such matters as soon as possible to explore your legal options.

David Hakimfar is a Trial Attorney and Senior Partner of Hakimfar Law, PLC, and a member-attorney of Pride Legal. He can be reached at (310) 730-1250 or through Pride Legal at 888-789-7743.