Maryland Premises Liability:  Nightclub subject to suit for injuries to patron beaten on dance floor

In Troxel v. Iquana Cantina, LLC, No. 820, September Term, 2010 (Md. App. October 3, 2011), plaintiff was a patron at a nightclub, where on a "college night" he was attacked and beaten on the dance floor by several unknown individuals. The Circuit Court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that the plaintiff's cause of action was an attempt to impose "dram shop" liability contrary to Maryland law; and that there was insufficient evidence to sustain a negligence claim. The Court of Special Appeals reversed, concluding that while Maryland does not recognize "dram shop" liability, here the plaintiff's cause of action was supported by sufficient evidence of negligence under a premises liability theory to survive the motion for summary judgment.

Dram ship liability is not recognized as a valid cause of action in Maryland. The Court explained at length the difference between dram shop liability and premises liability. A statutory dram shop cause of action requires the following elements: (1) a server of intoxicating beverages; (2) a recipient of alcohol who is either an intoxicated person or a minor; and (3) an injury which is proximately caused by the intoxication. In contrast, a premises liability claim against a tavern keeper has the following elements: (1) the owner controlled a dangerous or defective condition; (2) the owner had knowledge or should have had knowledge of the dangerous condition; and (3) the harm suffered was a foreseeable result of that condition.

The Court found that the gravamen of the amended complaint was that the injury resulted from the defendants' failure to protect patrons from a dangerous condition, and not from the furnishing of alcohol, and that the Circuit Court was incorrect to analyze this as a dram shop action.

Within the State of Maryland, the seminal case addressing duty in a premises liability context is Scott v. Watson, 278 Md. 160 (1976). Expanding on the teachings of Scott, the Court of Special Appeals, in Corinaldi v. Columbia Courtyard, Inc., 162 Md. App. 207 (2005), discussed three scenarios where a landowner would be liable for the criminal acts of a third party on their property. Id. at 25. A landlord would be liable if it has knowledge of: (1) prior similar criminal incidents on his property; (2) prior conduct of the criminals; or (3) events occurring on the premises immediately prior to and leading up to the criminal act, that made imminent harm foreseeable. Id.

In the present case, plaintiff focused solely on the first scenario, prior similar incidents. The Court of Special Appeals found overwhelming evidence that fights routinely occurred on the premises prior to the events that gave rise to this lawsuit. Specifically, the Court of Special Appeals found several acts of violence within the year leading up to the incident giving rise to this case. Id. at 6. Additionally, several security guards swore under oath that fights occurred most nights, and with greater frequency on ?college night,? which was the night plainitff was injured. Id. at 7.

The Court concluded that,

On the question of legal causation, when viewing all facts, and all reasonable inferences drawn from the facts, in a light most favorable to Troxel, the evidence suggests that his injuries were the foreseeable result of a typical night at Iguana Cantina. It was foreseeable from the previous incidents of violence that a large, rowdy crowd might accumulate in Iguana Cantina; that a physical altercation might occur on the dance floor; that it might be difficult to detect a physical altercation without certain security measures in place; and that a person like Troxel might suffer a physical injury as a result of violence inflicted by third persons at the nightclub. A jury could reasonably conclude that these college nights facilitated such an environment of disorder and violence that the injuries sustained by Troxel were foreseeable.

For further information on the law of premises liability in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, and West Virginia, with regard to the criminal acts of third parties, see Liability of Landowner for Criminal Acts of Third Parties
Categories: Maryland