Bars Liable in Drunken Brawl, but Not McDonald's

By William Vogeler, Esq. on January 29, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This is a case for why McDonald's should never offer alcohol or host a happy hour.

It's also an awful lesson about not drinking and fighting because Patrick Casey died outside a McDonald's in a drunken brawl. His parents sued the fast-food restaurant and the bars that allegedly served the brawlers too much booze.

In Casey v. McDonalds Corporation, a trial judge threw out their case. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, however, said the plaintiffs have a case -- but not against McDonald's.

Negligence Per Se

Everybody can find a McDonald's that is open 24 hours a day, like the one at 19th and M Streets, N.W. in Washington, D.C. Casey and Jason Ward stumbled into the establishment one Friday night after bar hopping around town.

A fight broke out, and Ward punched Casey, who fell and hit his head on the sidewalk. Four days later, he died in a local hospital.

His parents sued and alleged the bars were negligent and violated D.C. Code Section 25-781 by serving the men alcohol after they were already intoxicated. The trial judge dimissed the claims against bars, concluding the complaint did not show they proximately caused Casey's death.

The judge granted McDonald's summary judgment motion because the facts didn't show the restaurant's employees were negligent. The DC Circuit affirmed the judgment for McDonald's, but reversed the ruling for the bars.

But-for Causation

Under D.C. tort law, the bars are negligent per se if they serve intoxicated persons. The also law requires a heightened showing of foreseeability when an intervening criminal act causes a plaintiff's injury, but the appeals court said the doctrine doesn't apply when a bar serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated customer.

"In those circumstances, as a matter of D.C. public policy, the bar may be liable for injuries caused by the drunk patron after he or she leaves the bar," the judges said.

The court reversed and remanded, but it was a close call for the Caseys because they filed their claim after the local statute of limitations expired. However, the D.C. council saved their claim by extending the statute to two years retroactively.

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