Court Says Bar Owner is Not Responsible for Wrongful Death of Patron

When bouncers killed a bar patron following a New Year’s party, the family turned to the bar owner for their wrongful death lawsuit. But a recently published opinion said the bar owner was not responsible for the criminal actions of its employees.

New Year’s Party Results in Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Brannigan Brothers Restaurants and Taverns, LLC (Brannigan) in Lansing, Michigan, hosted a 2012 New Year’s event resulting in one of the company’s bouncers being fired and a patron being beaten to death. Travis Peterson’s family filed a wrongful death against the bar, Mueller v Brannigan Brothers Restaurants & Taverns, LLC, asking the jury to find the bar owner responsible for the wrongful death of the patron.

Vicarious Liability and Employee Acts

Bar owners can sometimes be held responsible for the injury or wrongful death of their patrons resulting from their employees’ actions. This theory is called “vicarious liability.” For bar owners, this can sometimes include the overzealous and violent actions of its bouncers.

However, in Mueller the Michigan Court of Appeals noted that vicarious liability only applies to employees on the job and acting in ways they could reasonably believe are part of their job. One by one, the court eliminated the vicarious liability claims for the four bouncer defendants, eventually finding the bar owner was not responsible for the wrongful death of its patron.

Vicarious Liability Doesn’t Apply to Former Employees or Those Off-the-Clock

Two of the four bouncers, Suttle and Kanaveh, were carved out because they weren’t acting as employees at the time of the fight. Kanaveh wasn’t working that night, but had attended the New Year’s party. Suttle had been working until he was fired two hours earlier. He had returned with a baton, allegedly to collect his pay for the night.

The other two bouncers, McClain and Smith, were on the clock, but the court said they weren’t acting within the reasonable scope of their employment. By chasing Peterson down the street and engaging him there, the court said they could not have “believed pursuing and assaulting Peterson would be conduct within the scope of [their] employment.”

Negligent Hiring Theory Depends on Employees’ Particular History

The wrongful death claims were also based on Brannigan’s negligent hiring, training, and supervision of its employees. The family said, even if Suttle had been fired, the bar owner should still be responsible for improperly hiring him in the first place given his propensity to violence. Bar owners can be responsible for negligently hired employees if the wrongful conduct (here fatal beating) could be reasonably predicted based on their previous misconduct.

The court took the time to describe Suttle’s “bizarre” previous plea to second-degree murder at the age of 15:

“Apparently, he was ‘playing with a firearm’ that went off, and he was given the gun by his ‘girlfriend,’ who was 40 or 42 years old at the time and with whom he was having a sexual relationship, in some kind of ‘almost like a suicide-type deal.’”

Even though Suttle was also convicted of second-degree murder for Peterson’s death, the court said:

“[T]he nature of the offense does not seem to easily lend itself to predicting the kind of pursuit and assault that occurred here, especially given the well-known propensity for teenagers to engage in dubious conduct they regret as adults.”

The court’s opinion so narrowly construes the negligent hiring doctrine, it would be difficult to find a circumstance where an employer’s knowledge of a prior conviction could reasonably predict future behavior. Even an identical conviction was distinguished because of the facts behind the employee’s criminal history – information unlikely to be available to an employer at the time of hire.

Comparative Negligence Verdict Leaves Bar Owner Not Responsible for Employees’ Acts

At the end of the wrongful death trial, the jury was asked to assign comparative negligence to the parties. It found Suttle was 80% at fault for Peterson’s death. Peterson was found 20% responsible for apparently starting the fight. Because the Court of Appeals said the bar owner wasn’t responsible for Suttle’s behavior, Brannigan did not have to pay anything on the family’s wrongful death lawsuit.

The Macomb Law Group, is a personal injury law firm in Clinton Township, MI. Our wrongful death attorneys can help you evaluate your claims and get the recovery you deserve. If you or a loved one have been seriously injured, contact Macomb Law Group and get our team working for you.


  • James Spagnuolo

    I began working in personal injury law more than 20 years ago, starting as a law clerk during my first year of law school at Wayne State University School of Law in Detroit. After passing the bar exam in 2002, I went on to become a partner at a series of law firms before opening the Macomb Law Group in 2017. [email protected] Spagnuolo James

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