Posted by H. Lee Pruett
Sometimes companies throw parties at which someone gets hurt. And, of course, when people get hurt, they often look to blame someone else, especially the deep pocket. In January, the Georgia Court of Appeals rendered a decision which should be of interest to attorneys who may have occasion to represent such a company. In B-T Two, Inc. v. Bennett, Case No. A10A1716 (Ga. Ct. App., Jan. 27, 2011), the Court considered whether the defendant, doing business as Buffalo’s Cafe, was entitled to summary judgment in a case where one of its employees assaulted the plaintiff at a party sponsored by the defendant company.
It all began one September night in 2006 when several people down in Laurens County got together to throw a party at a private residence as a fund raiser for a Buffalo’s Cafe manager who was leaving to care for his sick child. They had posted fliers at Buffalo’s Cafe. Though the flier invited all to “PARTY!!!” and “HELP BUFFALO’S SAY FAREWELL TO THE BEST DAMN MANAGER EVER,” the Court noted there was no evidence that Buffalo’s owned the premises where the party took place, paid any expenses, provided food or booze, collected any revenue, or put out any promotional material. Nevertheless, although the evidence was disputed, the Court assumed that Buffalo’s Cafe sponsored the party and that the plaintiff, Hunter Bennett, was an invitee rather than a social guest or trespasser. An employee wearing a Buffalo’s shirt took in the cover charge which allowed the guests to have “unlimited beer.” During the party, Bennett exchanged unpleasant words with the bartender who happened to be the wife of a Buffalo’s Cafe employee. Bennett then had words with a guy playing billiards. When this guy returned thirty minutes later to apologize to Bennett, the Buffalo’s Cafe employee came up and slugged Bennett in the head, knocking him to the floor where the employee continued to beat and kick him.
Bennett sued Buffalo’s Cafe under theories of respondeat superior and negligence. Buffalo’s moved for summary judgment, which the trial court denied. The Court of Appeals reversed. The Court quickly dispensed with Bennett’s claim of liability through respondeat superior. Under this theory, “a master is liable for the tort of its servant only to the extent that the servant committed the tort in connection with his employment by the master, within the scope of his employment, and in furtherance of his master’s business.” The question is “not whether the act was done during the existence of the employment, but whether it was done within the scope of the actual transaction of the master’s business.” Although this is usually a question for the jury, the court may decide it as a matter of law in “plain and undisputable” cases. In this case, the Court found no evidence whatever that the employee’s assault on Bennett was “within the scope of his employment or in furtherance of Buffalo’s business.”
As to his claim of negligence, Bennett offered two theories. First, Bennett argued that Buffalo’s sponsorship of a party with unlimited alcohol was a proximate cause of his injuries. The Court held that O.C.G.A. § 51-1-40 clearly foreclosed that claim. This statute provides that, with the exception of injuries from motor vehicle accidents, the consumption of alcohol, rather than the sale or serving of it, is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted by an intoxicated person. In this case, to the extent Bennett was assaulted because his assailant was intoxicated, Buffalo’s Cafe could not be liable for serving the alcohol.
Bennett’s second theory of negligence was that Buffalo’s Cafe failed to provide adequate security. While assuming Buffalo’s Cafe was an “occupier” of the premises, the Court stated that its duty is one of ordinary care in keeping the premises safe for invitees, but this “does not mean that an owner or occupier of land is an insurer of the safety of his invitee.” Here, Bennett had to show evidence that the criminal act was reasonably foreseeable and that Buffalo’s Cafe had superior knowledge of the danger. The Court held that Bennett failed to show that similar criminal acts had occurred in the same location or area, and he had shown no evidence that Buffalo’s Cafe had knowledge that any of the people at the party had dangerous propensities. Thus, having failed to “come forward with any evidence from which a jury could conclude that Buffalo’s had superior knowledge of the risk of criminal wrongdoing,” Buffalo’s was entitled to summary judgment.