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The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday affirmed that a bar and its liability insurer must face a negligence lawsuit filed by the family of an off-duty employee who died after a fall while helping eject an intoxicated patron.
Two men had become drunk and belligerent after consuming several beers and hard-liquor shots at Uptown Drink in Minneapolis on March 23, 2011, forcing the bartender and other employees — including Maxwell Henson, who was present but not working that night — to forcibly remove them, according to documents in David Lee Henson et. al v. Uptown Drink LLC, Assurance Co. of America, filed in the state high court in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Mr. Henson fell and hit his head on concrete, causing a traumatic brain injury that took his life days later. His family in February 2012 sued Uptown Drink for the death in Minnesota district court, pleading innkeeper negligence and violations of the state’s dram-shop law that holds bars responsible when a person is injured through the actions of an intoxicated individual if the establishment sold the alcohol illegally, records state.
Uptown Drink first moved for summary judgment before the district court, arguing that the state’s workers compensation act barred the suit. After a workers compensation judge determined that Mr. Henson’s death arose out of and in the course of his employment, the district court granted the bar’s motion. A state court of appeals reversed the district court, holding that the evidence was insufficient to establish that Mr. Henson’s death arose out of and in the course of his employment, and the suit proceeded again in the district court.
The district court granted the bar’s second motion for summary judgment, this time on the innkeeper-negligence and dram-shop claims, determining that the bar owed no duty based on the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk. On the dram-shop claim, the court decided as a matter of law that the claim failed on the element of proximate cause — that the patron’s intoxication was not the sole cause of Mr. Henson’s death.
The court of appeals in December 2017 again reversed and remanded, ruling that the district court had improperly applied the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk “because reasonable persons could reach different conclusions on whether Henson had actual knowledge of the particular risks presented,” and “even if the doctrine did apply … there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that Uptown Drink had enlarged the risk” by serving alcohol; and finding on the proximate cause element of the dram-shop claim that “intoxication need only be a substantial factor in bringing about the injury” and not the sole cause.
“Viewed in a light most favorable to (Henson’s family), there is sufficient evidence that intoxication was a substantial factor in causing Henson’s injury, and there is sufficient evidence of a direct link between that intoxication and the injury,” documents state.
The state’s highest court affirmed the appellate court decision on those same grounds, ruling in part that “a reasonable fact-finder could determine that (the patron’s) intoxication, violent outburst, and subsequent physical resistance, taken together, were the proximate cause of the fall that killed Henson.”
The state Supreme Court also ruled against the bar’s argument that negligence does not stand because of the foreseeability of death, finding that that the facts surrounding the event determined that the death was “foreseeable” for the establishment, stating that “there was evidence of both obvious intoxication and problematic interactions with bar employees and other patrons” before the altercation that took Ms. Henson’s life.
Counsel for Uptown Drink could not be reached for comment. Assurance Co. of America could not immediately be reached for comment.
Cincinnati Insurance Co. has prevailed over a Fairfax Financial Holding Ltd. unit in a coverage dispute involving a worker’s death.