Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Idaho Supreme Court--Jones v. Starnes

On January 10, 2011, the Idaho Supreme Court decided Jones v. Starnes. The Court unanimously affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment on several theories of liability brought by the Jones in the underlying lawsuit.

On December 17, 2005, the Jones' and their friends went to dinner and then stopped at a local bar, Boomers, in Lewiston, Idaho. Mr. Joshua Jones never entered Boomers but waited in his truck while his friend went into Boomers for some unstated purpose. While Jones waited outside the bar, the Boomers' bouncer escorted a Boomers' patron outside. The patron hit Jones' truck for some purpose and then a group of people spilled out of Boomers and onto the street and sidewalk outside the bar. Jones got out of the truck to "clear a path" for the truck and was struck in the face and knocked down by one of the individuals. Jones could never identify his assailant.

Jones subsequently sued Boomers and its owners for his injuries. Boomers filed a motion for summary judgment, which Judge Brudie granted as to all counts alleged by Jones.

Jones' first theory of liability was negligence. However, negligence requires a duty of care before liability can be imposed. The Idaho Supreme Court finds that Jones' assault was unforeseeable and that Jones had no evidence that Boomers' knew that Jones' assailant had any violent propensities. Jones also had no evidence that Boomers served any alcohol the group from which his assailant came nor that alcohol played any part in the assault. Additionally, the Court finds that Jones was never a patron of Boomers and that Boomers, at most, only owed a duty to its patrons.

A second theory of liability is that of premises liability. The Idaho Supreme Court rejects Jones' arguments because the assault occurred on a public sidewalk or street and not on Boomers' property. A second reason for denying Jones' theory is that any harms were caused by an activity and not a condition of the property itself, which is a prerequisite for premises liability. Since the fight that harmed Jones was not the result of a physical defect or condition of the property, premises liability was inappropriate.

The third theory is negligence per se, which provides that violation of a statute is conclusive proof of negligence. Jones argues that two Lewiston ordinances apply. The first states that sidewalks should be free of debris or obstructions/impediments of whatsoever kind. The second ordinance prohibits bars from selling alcohol to individuals already intoxicated. The Court deals with both.

The first ordinance is rejected as a basis for negligence per se because "there is no indication that a group of people that happen to be standing on the sidewalk was meant to be included as an 'obstruction' or 'impediment' under the ordinance" and that it would be "unreasonable" for the Idaho Supreme Court to conclude otherwise.

The second ordinance is also rejected because Jones presented no evidence that the unknown assailant was already intoxicated or that Boomers served him alcohol with the knowledge that the assailant was intoxicated. Therefore, there was no duty.

The final theory alleged by Jones is public nuisance. Jones claimed that the group of people, specifically the assailant, constituted an "offensive instrumentality" which Boomers had a duty to remove. The Court says no to this argument because there was no evidence that Boomers "had control of the people on the sidewalk or street where the incident occurred."

The appeal seemed to be a real stretch of legal principles governing negligence. Had Jones patronized Boomers, perhaps the result would have been different. However, he was part of a brawl on a public causeway and never established that Boomers had any real role in causing the brawl. Therefore, the Court's decision is right on point.

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