According to the Florida Supreme Court, a bar or restaurant owner must make a “reasonable effort to maintain order among his patrons, employees, or those who come upon the premises.” The owner may be liable for any on-premises injuries suffered if there is a “foreseeable” risk of harm. Recently, a Florida appeals court addressed the requirements for determining such foreseeability.
Bellevue v. Frenchy’s South Beach Café
Jennifer Bellevue went to Frenchy’s in Clearwater one night to give her roommate, a bartender at the restaurant, a ride home. When she arrived there was a family of Irish tourists “who had been drinking heavily and were rowdy and disorderly” in the restaurant. The manager left Bellevue’s roommate—described as a “petite woman”–to deal with the Irish family. A verbal altercation between the Irish family and another individual escalated into a physical confrontation. Bellevue was “severely beaten” in the fight.
Bellevue later sued Frenchy’s over her injuries. (The Irish tourists were arrested and criminally charged but jumped bail and returned to Ireland.) Bellevue said the restaurant failed to maintain safe conditions for its patrons.
Bellevue attempted to introduce evidence related to 60 prior incidents—dating back more than four years—in and around Frenchy’s in order to prove there was a “foreseeable” risk of violence at the restaurant. Among the incidents Bellevue cited were numerous cases of patrons ejected for excessive drinking, fighting and other threatening behavior. Bellevue argued the 60 incidents showed a “likelihood of disorderly conduct by third persons in general” that management should have taken greater care to protect patrons from.
Frenchy’s objected to the introduction of this evidence. The trial judge largely agreed and excluded all but 12 of the incidents. The jury ultimately delivered a verdict in favor of Frenchy’s.
The Florida Second District Court of Appeal vacated the jury’s decision and ordered a new trial. The three-judge appeals panel said the trial judge incorrectly applied the law in excluding 48 of the 60 incidents Bellevue wanted the jury to hear about. The Florida Supreme Court and other state appeals courts have previously held that a restaurant owner’s “actual or constructive knowledge, based upon past experiences” of disorderly conduct is relevant when trying to establish “foreseeability” risk of harm to patrons. In contrast, both Frenchy’s and the trial court maintained only evidence of “similar criminal acts” was relevant to Bellevue’s case. The appeals court said that was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decisions.
Although the appeals court ordered a new trial, it did not order the lower court to admit all 60 incidents into evidence. Rather, the trial court must individually consider each incident’s relevance in establishing whether it put Frenchy’s “on notice” that the fight leading to Bellevue’s injuries was foreseeable. One appeals judge wrote separately to note Bellevue could prove a number of theories of liability, including “a specific standard of care to provide additional security whenever the restaurant was open.”
All Florida businesses, including retailers, restaurants and taverns, must maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition. As this case demonstrates, the standard for deciding what is safe may include not just what happens within the walls of your business but also the surrounding area. If you have questions or concerns about your own business’s potential liability, it’s important you speak with an experienced Florida business attorney. Contact John S. Sarrett in Naples today.