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Sports Bar Liable for Wrongful Death in Patron’s Fall Down Stairs

By J. Jordan Scott

    The Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court ruling that held a sports bar liable for the death of a patron who entered a door marked “Employees Only” and was subsequently killed falling down a flight of stairs, in Bernier, et al. v. Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc. (MA Appeals Court 14-P-1967). The bar, Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc. (“Smitty’s”), argued that the deceased, Roger Leger, was a trespasser and thus not subject to a negligence claim. The trial court disagreed.

    On the night of the incident, Mr. Leger went to find the bar’s restroom. Three adjacent doors, marked “Gentlemen,” “Ladies,” and “Employees Only” were the same color and similarly marked. The “Employees Only” door opened into an unlit stairwell, with an over two-foot drop to the stairs, and while it was normally locked during business hours, the door was not locked on this particular night. Mr. Leger accidentally used the “Employees Only” door, fell down the stairs, and succumbed to injuries two weeks later.

     Mr. Leger’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Smitty’s. Smitty’s argued that because Mr. Leger had no right to open a door marked “Employee’s Only” and enter the basement area, he was a trespasser and thus not entitled to a duty of reasonable care. The jury ultimately found that Smitty’s was negligent in maintaining the property, and that negligence caused Mr. Leger’s injuries (although the ultimate damage award was reduced by 20%, the amount of negligence the jury attached to Mr. Leger).

    The crux of the matter here is that Mr. Luger was lawfully on the premises, and that he accidentally went through a door marked “Employees Only” does not make him a trespasser. Because he was lawfully on the premises, Smitty’s, like any landowner (especially those open to the general public), owed Mr. Luger a duty of care to act reasonably and maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition. At trial, Smitty’s had testified that the unlocked “Employee’s Only” door created a dangerous condition for anybody not knowing what lay on the other side, and that it was foreseeable that a patron may accidentally open that door, given its proximity and similarity in appearance to the restroom doors.

     This case contains some important lessons for bar and restaurant owners, and the hospitality industry generally. All patrons are owed a duty of care that the establishment be reasonably free of hazards. Especially where alcohol is served, owners should expect that customers may wander around the premises and may not read every posted sign. Areas that are off-limits to customers should be very clearly noted, if not locked or otherwise physically inaccessible. Smitty’s ran into problems here because a door that should have been locked was not, and that door’s proximity to the restrooms, areas patrons are expected to go, was not reasonable given the hazard behind the door. All business owners should review the layout of their establishments and ensure that patrons may only access areas they are permitted to enter.

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