Can I Sue If an Intoxicated Person Hurts Me at a Bar?

Michael GrossmanAugust 16, 2018 4 minutes

We talk a lot at the firm about how dram shop law helps people who are injured by intoxicated drivers. As a matter of fact, as one of the state's leading dram shop firms we're proud of our record of advocacy for drunk driving victims.

It occurred to me the other day that many people may think of dram only in a DWI context. It's certainly the most common case type involving those laws, but drunk people can do a lot of harm without getting anywhere near a vehicle. Are people hurt by other forms of intoxicated violence--say, drunken bar fights--able to sue the bar where they're injured?

Dram Shop Law Has a Wider Application

Anyone hurt by an intoxicated person's actions may have legal recourse to sue the bar or restaurant that helped the perpetrator get drunk in the first place. The idea behind that is that over-service of alcohol led to the attacker's choice to start a fight.

Think of it this way: even people who have a bad day or are just kind of ill-tempered by their nature aren't usually looking for a fistfight. Few folks go drinking with the specific intention of duking it out with someone. Alcohol can turn up an innocent situation into a dangerous one and that's when someone starts throwing punches for no good reason.

That's to say nothing of possible weapon use. Leaving aside what patrons might have carried in with them, bars are also full of potential weapons to grab when tempers run too hot. People swing pool cues, barstools, and of course bottles and beer mugs (hitting someone with one of those is apparently called "glassing"). Punchy drunks are already dangerous before they're armed, and things only get worse from there.

Don't Take Bar Fights Too Lightly.

Some people might dismiss these donnybrooks as a side effect of bar life, thinking they don't result in much worse than a split lip and some wounded pride to go with the following morning's hangover. On the contrary, they can be extremely dangerous. The news occasionally publishes stories about fights that go way too far--sometimes with fatal results.

Earlier this year, for example, a 23-year-old man in San Marcos was punched hard in the face by another man in line outside a bar. The victim fell backward and struck his head on the concrete sidewalk, knocking him unconscious and causing a traumatic head injury. He survived, but he needed months of extensive therapy to fully recover.

Around the same time in Galveston a man was arrested for "glassing" another patron who had already been punched and restrained by the attacker's friends. A large shard of glass embedded in the victim's forehead and he had to be taken to a nearby hospital to treat his serious wound.

A month later in the small Panhandle town of Dumas, a fracas went too far when a bargoer was savagely beaten by another man. Even after he fell his assailant allegedly continued to punch and kick him on the ground, causing grievous bodily harm. After the fight was broken up the fallen man was taken to a hospital, where he died of his injuries.

That last is of course an extreme example of what can happen; most bar fights don't end in death. However, for every lethal Texas brawl there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, that can still easily send one or more people to an emergency room. The point is, these fights are unlikely to have occurred--or at least to have been taken to such great lengths--without alcohol spurring them on.

The Takeaway

Car crashes caused by drunk drivers may get the lion's share of attention in the media, but a glance at almost any city's police blotter will show officers dispatched many times a week for calls involving Breach of the Peace and Intoxication Assault. The former can mean a lot of different things and the latter can be used for non-fatal DUI crashes, but both can just as easily describe a drunk bar patron attacking someone in an alcohol-induced haze.

If it can be proven that the negligent service of alcohol is the proximate cause of an injury, the victim has the legal right to pursue damages from the bar that acted negligently. A proximate cause produces specific, foreseeable consequences--for example, it's easy to predict that serving too much alcohol to someone may make them dangerous, either from getting careless or from getting violent (or both). Put another way, in a dram shop case it's agreed upon that the intoxicated party wouldn't have gone to such harmful lengths without alcohol clouding his brain.

Victims of drunken violence deserve a chance to hold not only the perpetrator but also his enabler responsible for any lasting damage caused. Bars that willingly pour drinks for patrons that clearly should be cut off deserve to be held accountable for violating the law. If evidence shows that Bob was poured a dozen whiskey sours in his three-hour stay at Pub's Labour's Lost, then the establishment is partly to blame for Bob's decision to drunkenly assault someone. Bob may have swung the fist, but alcohol suppressed the common sense that would have kept him from doing so. Dram shop would consider both him and the bar responsible for the violence that occurred.

In sum, the answer to the initial question--"Can I sue a bar if I'm hurt in a drunken fight?"--is yes, in certain circumstances. If a dram shop attorney can prove that alcohol was the primary reason a fight took place, then the purveyors of that alcohol should do right for those caught up in it.