A sports bar where a patron abruptly pulled a gun and killed a karaoke operator escaped liability to the dead man’s wife for failing to prevent the attack. Tennessee law imposes a duty on business owners to protect their patrons only from risks that are foreseeable. Because the bar and its neighborhood did not have a history of crime, and the shooter did not have a history of violence, his sudden outburst was not foreseeable and the bar had no duty to protect the dead man, the Tennessee Court of Appeals decided.
Mr. and Ms. Goeser ran a karaoke business in the greater Nashville area, and Hank Wise became a regular at the Goeser’s shows. Over time, Wise developed a fixation on Ms. Goeser. At a karaoke event at a sports bar in South Nashville in April 2009, Ms. Goeser became uncomfortable by Wise’s presence, as the man normally only attended downtown Nashville events. She approached the bar’s manager about Wise, and the manager asked the patron to leave. Wise removed a gun from his jacket and shot Mr. Goeser in the head several times, killing him instantly.
The wife sued the bar for negligence causing her husband’s death. According to the wife, the bar failed to protect her husband by having inadequate security and inadequately training its employees. The trial court concluded that Wise’s actions were not foreseeable and therefore the bar was not liable for the husband’s fatal injuries.
The appeals court reached the same result. Business owners have a duty to ensure the safety of their patrons, but that duty extends only to protection against foreseeable dangers. The murder that occurred at the sports bar was not foreseeable and the owners owed Goeser no duty to act to prevent it.
The court pointed out that Tennessee does not have a clear-cut standard for when a risk is foreseeable, but if a business experiences a large volume of crime or is located in a high-crime area, then that increases the foreseeability of harm happening to a patron and raises the possibility of a duty on the part of the business owner.
The sports bar where Wise shot Goeser was neither. The evidence presented to the trial court indicated that the business was located in a safe neighborhood and that the bar had experienced no burglaries or thefts in the previous two years. The wife offered no proof that the bar or its surroundings were unsafe. Additionally, the bar manager testified that she had never seen Wise in the establishment before and that the Goesers had never mentioned him to her before the fatal night.
Additionally strengthening the bar’s argument was the wife’s deposition testimony. She indicated that she felt more irritated than threatened by Wise when she asked the bar manager to ask Wise to leave and that the man’s behavior offered no warning of impending violence until he drew his weapon. If the Goesers (who knew Wise) could not foresee the man’s homicidal outburst, it was clearly not reasonable to demand that the bar staff (who had never encountered Wise) anticipate such an outcome.
Seeking civil justice for harm incurred during a criminal act, such as being the victim of violence at a restaurant or store can be a complicated case, as Tennessee law does not have a “bright line” where liability starts. If you’ve been injured because a business lacked adequate security, or otherwise improperly failed to protect you, reach out to the Law Office of David S. Hagy, PSC today.
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