This case involves the liability of a tavern keeper in the District of Columbia for the intentional torts committed by a patron who became intoxicated on the premises. Rumors Restaurant, the defendant tavern keeper, moved for a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiffs' case and has renewed that motion at the close of the defendant's case. For reasons explained below, the motion has been granted in open court.
The facts are not complex. Plaintiff Lee Norwood is a professional hockey player who, at the time, played defense for the Washington Capitols. Defendant Mark Marrocco is a large, powerful young man who entered Rumors Restaurant in Northwest Washington on the evening of August 17, 1982. He was under the legal drinking age at the time, but the restaurant failed to check his identification. Several hours later, after consuming a number of alcoholic drinks, Marrocco left the restaurant with some friends. Marrocco acknowledges that he was intoxicated when he left the restaurant.
Outside the restaurant, the Morrocco party encountered plaintiff Lee Norwood and a group of Norwood's friends. Norwood had also been drinking. He and his friends had consumed numerous drinks at a nearby bar. Norwood, like Marrocco, acknowledges that he was intoxicated at the time.
When the Norwood and Marrocco parties met on the sidewalk outside Rumors, words were exchanged and a melee ensued. It is unclear from the testimony just how or why the fight started, as might be expected when all participants were intoxicated. During the fight, plaintiff Norwood and defendant Marrocco paired off. Norwood was knocked to the sidewalk, lost consciousness, and awoke in George Washington University Hospital with multiple injuries, including a broken jaw. He subsequently sued Marrocco for assault and battery and Rumors for serving Marrocco alcoholic beverages. Marrocco counterclaimed for assault and battery, false arrest, and defamation.
It is established in this jurisdiction that a tavern keeper may be held liable for damages caused by the intentional torts of an intoxicated patron. Marusa v. District of Columbia, 157 U.S. App. D.C. 348, 484 F.2d 828 (D.C. Cir. 1973). In Marusa, the D.C. Circuit, sitting as the then highest state court for the District of Columbia, 484 F.2d at 830 n.1, ruled that D.C. Code § 25-121(a) creates a civil cause of action against a tavern keeper who serves an intoxicated person. Plaintiff in Marusa was shot by an intoxicated off-duty police officer, and subsequently sued the bar that had served beverages to the officer.
There are two strong grounds for directing a verdict on plaintiffs' claims against Rumors Restaurant under D.C. Code § 25-121(a). Most significantly, the Court of Appeals has clearly indicated that any liability to injured third parties under this statute is based on a negligence theory. Marusa, 484 F.2d at 833. Even if Rumors Restaurant was in fact negligent in serving Mark Marrocco in this case, either because he appeared intoxicated or because he was underage, and even if the fight and the resulting injuries were a foreseeable result of that negligence, Marusa, 484 F.2d at 835, a reasonable jury could not fail also to conclude that plaintiff Lee Norwood's own contributory negligence was a proximate cause of his injuries.
The evidence adduced at trial showed that plaintiff was himself intoxicated when the fight occurred, and that he was in a public place at the time the fight occurred, and that he was in the company of a group of people who had been drinking at the time the fight occurred. In addition, plaintiff testified that he exchanged words with the defendant and attempted to restrain him when the melee commenced.
No reasonable jury could fail to conclude that Lee Norwood's own intoxication and actions, like Marrocco's intoxication and the alleged negligence of Rumors which produced it, were a proximate cause of plaintiffs' injuries. A reasonable person using ordinary care would not become intoxicated and then, while intoxicated on a public street, reach for a formidable stranger who is also intoxicated and attempt to hold him at bay. Such conduct approaches contributory negligence as a matter of law, especially in light of D.C. Code § 25-128, which provides:
No person in the District of Columbia, whether in or on public or private property, shall be intoxicated and endanger the safety of himself or of any other person or of property.