Man injured in club fight can sue over injuries

Judges rule that club could be liable

October 04, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

A young man who was severely beaten on a dance floor packed with drunken patrons at a now-closed Baltimore nightclub can sue the owners and allege negligence, the state's second highest court has ruled.

The court unanimously overturned a decision by a city Circuit Court judge who threw out the suit against the Iguana Cantina before it got to trial. The judge had ruled that the club's owners could not have predicted the fight that occurred in September 2008 and could not have "controlled this dangerous condition or situation."

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals disagreed, ruling Monday that the victim, James E. Troxel, who was 20 at the time, suffered severe head injuries that were "the foreseeable result of a typical night at Iguana Cantina."

The judges noted a long history of violence at the club, formerly located at Market Place, which typically escalated on nights in which there were events promoted to college students. "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," the court ruled.

An attorney for the limited-liability company that owned the club, James R. Anderson, said he disagrees with the opinion and is consulting with his clients to determine whether to ask Maryland's highest court to hear the case. "Right now, all options are open," the lawyer said.

Troxel's attorney, Charles M. Kerr, said he hopes that the ruling clears the way for a trial, in which his client is seeking more than $11 million. He said his client was in a coma for a month and continues to suffer physical and neurological problems.

The beating, for which there has been no arrest, fueled a heated debate in 2008 and 2009 over what Baltimore police called out-of-control nightclubs, some of which bused in students from area colleges for nights of binge drinking that authorities said helped created a toxic atmosphere downtown.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III used the incident to ban off-duty officers from working overtime at bars and clubs, saying he was worried about who would be liable, the city or the bar, should something happen.

At least a dozen off-duty officers were moonlighting outside Iguana Cantina when Troxel was beaten, but said they had no idea a fight was occurring inside the club. Bealefeld said at the time that it was unacceptable "when people wind up in a coma in a club that I have cops working secondary at and no one knows anything."

After the fight occurred, attorneys for the club allowed The Baltimore Sun to view a surveillance videotape from a surveillance camera that showed Troxel being swallowed by a crowd of about 700 patrons dancing to thundering music under pulsating lights.

Troxel is seen disappearing as he falls, but the actual attack is not evident. The club's attorney at the time said that two rival Towson fraternities were arguing and that Troxel grabbed a woman and was either pushed to the dance floor or slipped and fell.

The tape showed private security guards rushing to where Troxel fell, then cuts to footage from a camera outside the club. Three city police officers went inside the club, then emerged, holding the door for people carrying Troxel outside. Police said at the time that Troxel was intoxicated.

The Circuit Court judge granted the attorneys for Iguana Cantina summary judgment, ruling the claim fit under the state's "Dram Shop" liability law, which allows a person to seek damages from the seller of alcoholic beverages for injuries caused by a drunk patron. The law is designed to prevent bartenders from serving intoxicated people.

The judge ruled in June 2010 that Troxel offered no proof that the people who beat him were drunk, and that the club's owners "could not have known in advance that their hosting of college night would result in a physical altercation."

But the Court of Special Appeals said Troxel can pursue a more standard liability claim of negligence, whether alcohol was involved or not.

The judges said Troxel has ample evidence in his favor, nothing that in 2006, Baltimore police reported eight aggravated assaults, one robbery and one rape "that occurred within the premises of Iguana Cantina."

The ruling states that in the year before the September 2008 attack on Troxel, police reported an additional four aggravated assaults, one robbery and two assaults on police officers. A former security guard testified that from 2005 through 2008, five fights a night were common at the club.

"It was foreseeable from the previous incidents of violence that a large, rowdy crowd might accumulate in Iguana Cantina, and that a physical altercation might occur on the dance floor," the appellate judges wrote in their opinion.

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