Georgia Appeals Court Holds Restaurant Not Responsible for Parking Lot Stabbing

Is a restaurant liable when a customer is stabbed on its property? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this question and answered with a resounding “no.” A three-judge panel upheld a trial court’s decision awarding summary judgment to the restaurant.

The incident took place back in 2010. The victim was having dinner with his girlfriend and her family at a Mexican restaurant in Paulding County. At a nearby table, another customer–who had “consumed an unknown quantity of alcoholic beverages,” according to court records–began verbally harassing the group. The restaurant manager agreed to move the victim’s party to another table, but he declined to eject the drunken customer and, in fact, continued to serve him alcohol.

The customer continued to harass the victim’s group, at one point threatening a toddler. At this point, the restaurant manager asked the customer to leave. The manager later testified he was “a little afraid” of the customer but did not consider him an immediate threat to anyone in the restaurant.

Just before the ejection, two women in the victim’s group went outside to call 911 and report the drunk to the police. The man approached the woman and “started them calling then names.” The victim then went outside to protect the women. There was a confrontation. The victim actually threw the first punch, but the drunk stabbed him.

The Restaurant Was Not at Fault

The stabbing victim sued the restaurant for gross negligence and premises liability. Premises liability is based on the principle that a property owner must exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises (and any approaches) safe. However, the owner is not require to insure an invited person’s safety from criminal acts by a third party, unless such act “was reasonably foreseeable.” The key test is whether the owner has “superior knowledge” of a dangerous condition that might subject an invited person to “unreasonable risk of harm.”

In this case, the trial court found, and the Court of Appeals agreed, the victim “failed to come forward with evidence from which a jury could have concluded that” the restaurant owner might reasonably have foreseen the stabbing attack. There was no evidence of prior stabbings in the restaurant’s parking lot, nor did management have any prior experience with this particular assailant.

The victim argued the restaurant did have “superior knowledge” of the assailant’s excessive alcohol consumption. But the Court of Appeals rejected that argument because the victim and the restaurant had identical knowledge of the assailant’s drinking. The man was drinking in full public view. And in any event, the key consideration was not the assailant’s blood-alcohol level, but rather his propensity for violence–something neither the restaurant nor the victim had advance knowledge of.

The appeals court also rejected the victim’s contention that the committed “gross negligence” by continuing to serve the assailant alcohol “after it was clear he was drunk and in failing to call the police.” Gross negligence, the court explained, requires a showing the defendant failed to exercise even slight care. But the undisputed facts here showed the restaurant manager took some action, first by moving the victim’s party to another table, and ultimately ejecting the drunk from the building. Gross negligence would only exist if the restaurant took no action whatsoever.

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