Damage Control

Out Of Bounds

Recent court cases have extended the concept of "premises liability" in unexpected ways. Consider a recent case from the Appellate Court of Illinois. Four customers at a bar and grill began an argument that turned into a fight once they went outside. The bar cleared out, and several other customers joined the brawl while the owner and a few employees watched from inside. Eventually one customer was stabbed in the back, neck and chest. He sued the bar, claiming its owner and employees breached a duty to help.

The trial court dismissed the case, ruling that the business owner owed no duty because the brawl took place in the street--off the tavern's property. But the case was reinstated on appeal. The higher court ruled that business owners may not avoid their duty to protect customers from criminal attack just because an attack takes place outside their door--"especially when the owner contributes to the altercation by sending patrons into it."

This case breaks new legal ground. Traditionally, a business has had a duty to protect the public from harm while people are on the premises for business purposes. This includes suppliers, customers, vendors, contractors and employees (although workers' compensation covers most employee injuries whether or not the employer was negligent). The duty of care encompasses known dangers such as uneven pavement, and foreseeable dangers such as a threat of attack. Traditionally, however, that duty ended at the property line. The Illinois case expands the duty of care beyond the property line if the business owner knows about the threat and does nothing to stop it.

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This article was originally published in the August 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Damage Control.

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