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Lessons From Bar Fight Litigation

oldwestbarfightIn a previous phase of my career, I had an insurance company sending my firm work, which wrote liability policies to a whole bunch of seedy bars. So I got to defend rather a lot of cases of negligence arising from bar fights. By special request, I’ve summed up some observations that I recollect from this part of my experience as a younger lawyer.

Typically, the loser of a bar fight who later initiates a lawsuit has been beaten up pretty badly, or at least has the medical bills to suggest significant personal injuries. The loser sues the bar on one of several theories — the most common ones being inadequate security, not having banned a patron known to have a history of fighting, bar employees initiating the violence, or bar employees responding to a situation with unreasonable force. But that’s the boring legal stuff.

 

Demographics and Damages

Here, I can only provide anecdotal observations. I do not purport to have personally handled a statistically significant number of cases, and consider that the source of my cases was an insurance company that marketed itself to dive bars in and around Los Angeles. And recall that my experience was accumulated in the mid-1990’s, and as I discuss below, I am not immune to lensing of my memories. Still:

Roughly equal numbers of men and women filed these lawsuits. All of them were people of moderate to low economic means. Most of them where white and aged between thirty to fifty years.

In roughly half of these cases, the accusation was that the bar staff were the assailants, and in the other half, the claim was that the assailant was a “regular” patron who had a history of violence. Large numbers of participants — plaintiffs and their companions, bar staff, (alleged) assailants, non-participatory eyewitnesses — had criminal records, usually for petty drug offenses.

Everyone I can remember had tattoos, although one female plaintiff’s tattoos were not visible if she dressed modestly; I saw them when she pushed up her sleeve in deposition to show me a scar on her arm that she attributed to the fight.

I never had a case in which guns were involved. In one fight, a knife was pulled and things got a little slicey (better than getting stabby). In another fight, tensions lingered several days later and sadly resulted in a homicide. Mostly, though, we were talking about bruises and minor cuts, not broken bones or maimings, resulting from fisticuffs. The complaints were stitch-ups given by paramedics or at the E.R., sometimes resulting in scars; and lingering neurological and psychological complaints like persistent headaches, recurring dizziness, periodic episodes of blurred vision, agoraphobia, nausea and IB syndrome, and sleeping irregularities.

What’s that worth in terms of dollars? Generally, we were talking in the lower range of five figures, although I’m obligated to keep the exact amounts confidential (assisted by the fact that I don’t actually recall the specific numbers of any specific case; this was quite some time ago). I do recall several cases settling for a lot more money than I was particularly happy about, but then again I was a young lawyer eager to prove myself and thus anxious to take these things to trial, so the claims adjusters I was working with were more risk-averse than I.

And the phrase bar “fight” is something of a misnomer. “Assault and battery” are closer to the mark. Sometimes it’s a pretty one-sided affair — a drunk gets out of control and four bouncers eject her. Or one dude wants to fight and another doesn’t so the first dude just whales on the second dude. Because once someone has the upper hand, they use it. Whatever back and forth exchanges of punches mimics a 1970’s Clint Eastwood street fighting movie happens early and briefly. One person is usually better than the other at violence, and the winning tactic seems to be somehow immobilizing the opponent at an early point in the melee.

 

Why Bar Fights Start

You might think that a bar fight is most commonly started between two guys fighting over a woman. That’s not so, at least not in my experience. Ejection seems to be a more precipitating event. More than half the bar fights I had to sort out started when a too-drunk patron was asked to leave and refused to do so.

When the bar back or the bouncer attempts to escort the drunk out of the building, the drunk refuses to cooperate, and if the escorting turns in to physical handling, the drunk will wrestle away and attempt to run back in the bar. It is during this struggle that harmful physical contact between the drunk and someone else is initiated. By whom is not always clear — does the drunk punch the bouncer; does the drunk flail at the bouncer and hit a bystander; does the bouncer hit the drunk? These are the burning questions that must be sorted out in a bar-fight lawsuit.

You’d think that running back inside a place whose employees are trying to throw you out was a bad idea, but let’s remember we’re talking about very drunk people here. The bar become associated with pleasant emotions, of safety and calm and getting the booze buzz on. They don’t think it through in the heat of the moment that even if they succeed and get back in the bar, they still aren’t going to be served.

I never had a case of a man hitting on a woman, her turning him down, and then he got violent towards her. I only had one case of a man hitting on a woman, getting interrupted by her husband, and the drunk and the husband getting in to a fight. I did have many cases where a drunk interpreted someone’s statements or actions as an invitation to resolve conflict through violence.

 

Violence Must Be Fun Somehow

Now, this may be the result of witnesses trying to rationalize why a fight broke out. And by “rationalize,” I mean “speculate.” But based on what I heard from dozens of witnesses, those bar fighters who initiate confrontations with other patrons (as opposed to reacting badly to being 86’ed by the staff) do so as a substitute for obtaining sexual release. Dozens of witnesses over multiple cases reported to me that the person they identified as the assailant had either recently suffered a romantic reversal or had recently stuck out when trying to hit on a member of the opposite sex.

This suggests at least some substance to the trope of a link between propensity to violence and sexual frustration — the woman (or man) with whom the drunk was flirting is already spoken for and uninterested in extra-monogamous play, typically. “I’m not very likely to get laid today, so instead I’ll fight with someone,” seems to be roughly the thought pattern here. I speculate that this means on a neuro-biological level that engaging in aggression and violent behavior produces a feeling of satisfaction, which in turn triggers a release of endorphins or other similar hormones that the fighter’s brain craves.

This carries some rather dark implications for experiencing one’s own sex drive upon which I do not care to reflect further at this time.

 

Time and Distance are Confusing

People are bad at estimating, and especially bad at remembering their estimates, things like time and distance. Ask a participant in the fight how long it was from the first punch to the last blow, and you’re like as not to get a response of “About twenty minutes” as opposed to the much more accurate “I don’t know.” (Hint: as discussed below, sixty seconds or less is typical on video, when video is available at all.)

It’s not hard for a lawyer to take testimony like this and use it to impeach a witness’ credibility and sometimes even her confidence. “How far was it from point A to point B” gets you “About a hundred feet,” and “How long did it take the bouncer to run from point A to point B?” gets you “Very fast, about three seconds.” Well, come on. The world record for the 100-meter dash is Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds — a little math reveals that mr. Bolt can ran almost that fast five years ago, under ideal conditions. Can a 45-year-old overweight bar bouncer duplicate that speed in a crowded bar? Doesn’t seem very likely.

So the good news is that a site inspection will reveal how far it really is from point A to point B. And then you can make a judgment about whether the distance estimate or the time estimate was right. Because it ain’t both, unless your bouncer is also an Olympic-class sprinter at the apex of youth and physical conditioning. The bad news is that people are pretty much always going to say things that make it look like they have no idea what the fish they’re talking about when those statements are scrutinized, so often no witness is particularly credible or reliable.

A tangent on witness reliability: I was surprised, at this early stage of my career, at how often third-party witnesses would simply ignore subpoenas. I’ve since become quite jaded.

 

Woman are Quite Capable of Initiating Violence

When these cases first started coming to me, my understanding of women engaging in violence was colored by the idea that a woman would be aggressive in cases where she felt an emotional and personal provocation — if she thought another woman was trying to poach her man, or if her man had cheated on her, or something like that. I admit it, this way of looking at the world was quite sexist of me, and rather patronizing towards women.

But sometimes, a woman just gets drunk and doesn’t like being cut off by the bartender, just like her male counterpart. Or she responds disproportionately to a trivial miscommunication as though it were an intentional insult or a challenge, just like a drunk man more stereotypically will. Conquering my prejudice that women are disinclined to violence as a means of conflict resolution was an uncomfortable bit of growth I had to go through, in part because I didn’t think that it was a very complimentary sort of thing to observe.

Women were faster to employ weapons, whether prepared (the knife) or improvised. Improvised weapons are almost always thrown, and have included highball glasses, pool balls, bar stools, knives, and in one notable case, the assailant’s own feces. Male bar fighters used weapons too, but in my experience less frequently. Male fighters use environmental objects to assist in their hand-to-hand combat (slamming an opponent into a wall, bashing an opponent’s head into a parked car).

Neither male nor female assailants seemed to care all that much about the sex of their co-combatatants. The men seemed to think women were perfectly appropriate targets for violence based on their behavior (e.g., cutting in line ahead of them for a bathroom, pushing and shoving, and/or slurred insults and challenges); female bar-fighters did not demonstrate any particular concern about perceived imbalances between their own physical abilities and that of the men with whom they were fighting. I’m reluctant to call this phenomenon a triumph of cultural progression towards gender equality, so you can make of it what you will.

 

A Rashômon Theory

One of my first neurological-psychological speculations after the experience of deposing six witnesses and getting six different stories, and then hearing those same six witnesses each testify later, with each such story deviating substantially from the witnesses’ prior deposition testimony. I never went back to diagram it, but I believed at the time that each of these twelve stories told by these six witnesses, was in their own way mutually inconsistent with the other eleven available recollections of the disputed events (although not all of the inconsistencies was particularly material). How could this be?

I later found a neurological explanation. Memories are proteins encrusted on the outside of neurons within the brain. These proteins dissipate as the electricity flows through them and influence the direction or strength of this electrical impulse somehow, and then reconstitute when the electrical impulse is gone. Somehow, the pattern of electrical impulses is interpreted by the brain as a whole as a memory, but this means that every time we remember something, we are literally destroying that memory and reconstituting it — so each time that happens, there is a risk of error in replication. Think about how a computer file, say a JPG picture of your cat, has a small risk of data corruption every time it is used, copied, or otherwise accessed.

I’m not a neurologist. I’m not a (trained or properly-educated) psychologist. But I have had to make a study of how people behave, to take critical looks at how they seem to be thinking and communicating. So while I don’t really know if this is correct, it seems both a reasonable and satisfactory theory to explain my observations about the self-serving plasticity of human memory.

Even without my untrained and murky quasi-science, it’s nevertheless human nature that folks tend to tell stories that favor themselves, stories in which they at least don’t look bad, and generally in which they look good. About the only exception to this is when people tell stories with the intent of eliciting either laughter or sympathy from their interlocutors — then, they will tell stories that either reveal a trivially morally wrong but embarrassing behavior, or a story of overwhelming external circumstances and their own an unwise but understandable reaction to them.

The witnesses who testify in bar fight cases, which as it turns out is similar to the way witnesses testify in all cases, remember the dramatic events of the incident over and over and over again. If my theory is right, then what is happening is that people are telling themselves over and over again that they were the good guys, they were innocent of any significant moral wrongdoing, until they convince themselves to a moral certainty that this is the truth. No one wants to seem themselves as the bad guy, so they lens their own memories such that their own behavior becomes reasonable, socially acceptable, and morally justifiable. I’ve since observed that this phenomenon is powerful enough that witnesses will sometimes recant their own contemporaneous writings.

(On the subject of writings, police and sometimes paramedics get write down statements from witnesses or participants, which are universally criticized after the fact by witnesses who remember things differently from what is written.)

As a general rule, the more time passes between an event and a demand that they recount it, and the more thinking about it that they’ve done in that interim period, the more profound memory lensing will be — and generally the more lensing has taken place, the more insistent the witness will be that her statement today testimony is the absolute Gospel truth. This is probably a defense mechanism of the subconscious to allow people who have done bad things to continue to live with themselves afterwards; a way of silencing the superego. This all assumes, of course, that the person is not simply lying. People do that with some frequency, too.

It’s frightening to realize that 1) you, too, are a human being whose organic brain labors under this imperfection, and 2) courts decide questions of peoples’ lives, liberty, and property based on the assumption that oral testimony recalling past events is the highest and best form of evidence available to a jury. Deeper and still more disturbing is really gasping that 3) if everyone’s memory of past events is lensed such that we insist that even contemporaneous recordings of those events was somehow erroneous, then we really all live in a world where objective truth is an indeterminate and uncertain concept, more aspirational than actual.

 

The Healing Power of the Settlement Check

As with many other kinds of litigation, most of these cases settled before they got to a jury. But sometimes, delays and problems came up after a settlement figure was agreed upon. During those times, I learned after the fact that the plaintiffs reported to their lawyers that upon reaching the agreement, many of their objective symptoms — the ongoing headaches, the anxiety and sleepless nights, dizziness, and even agoraphobia — mitigated significantly.

The plaintiffs were convincing when they stated these things: they really believed what they were saying, and that they had this experience after a settlement number was agreed to, even if it was a number that they had to be cajoled by a mediator into accepting, but before they actually had their portion of the money in hand.

It seems that resolution of the dispute caused the symptoms to subside. What I haven’t noodled out yet is whether eliminating the stressor of litigation also eliminated the stimulus of psychosomatic subjective complaints, or whether eliminating that stressor triggered some sort of objective change in the person’s physical condition.

 

Bystanders and Noncombatants

Bar fights start quickly and end quickly. On those surprisingly rare occasions when video of the incidents was available to view, the fights lasted less than sixty seconds before the aggressor was subdued or restrained, and violence ended.

So bystanders tend not to be physically involved. When bystanders did get involved, they attempted to separate the combatants. When there were bouncers, they always stayed out of it. But most bystanders reported not even knowing that a fight was underway until several punches had been thrown. (This did not stop them from offering their opinions on who started it, of course).

The cops never arrived on the scene on time to see anything actually happen (really, how could they?), and when deposed, they always read their written statements out loud in response to any question any attorney asked, and remembered nothing independently.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I think I’m a better lawyer for having sifted through all the chaos of all these cases. Doing these cases kept me grounded in a world of unsophisticated people, rather than the somewhat more intellectual and professional world of lawyers who interact exclusively with other well-educated professionals; I was at some risk of becoming much more elitist at this point in my life than I later turned out to be, however imperfect that is. I developed my theories about truth and testimony that I describe above, which even if not scientifically valid still seems to serve me pretty well today, and those help guide me guide my clients through a world of conflicting testimony to this day.

And I’ve never been in a bar fight myself.

 

 

In more than a dozen bar fight cases I handled, an out-of-the-closet LGBTQ person was never involved, not even as a bystander. Granted, none of my clients were gay bars. These were not particularly pick-up places at all — these were the sorts of places that met the needs of the middle-aged man of sporadic acquaintance with grooming tools and foggy descriptions of his places and manners of employment, who prefers his Tuesday-at-10:00 a.m. kickstarter to have appreciably more vodka than tonic. But I’ll bet good money that fights break out at (divey) gay bars too, and probably for the same sorts of reasons and with the same frequencies that they happen in cishet bars.

Because of a law of evidence called the “Hearsay Rule,” using such written statements as evidence was frequently problematic.

 
Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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122 thoughts on “Lessons From Bar Fight Litigation

  1. Great essay. My first and last clubbing experience involved two completely unrelated homicides happening during the night I was there. One seemed gang related. The other was more random seeming. It was quite a scene. The very young and very sheltered upper-middle class kids did not know how to handle being stuck during a police investigation and tried to start a riot to push their way out. I imagine the drugs and alcohol did not help.

    The only bar fight I ever observed involved a street fight that spilled into the bar. This involved a blind accusation from one street kid against another of raping another street kid. The two guys looked like extras from Mad Max.

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  2. Awesome.

    I did wonder about the time events happened. Because women tend to have smaller body mass, they tend to get pissed-drunk quicker. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of trend toward 11:00 fights for women vs. closing time for men.

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  3. I’m still waiting for a fight to break out in the seedy drag bar I hang out at. So far, nothing but catty comments and random boob grabs. And drunk bachelorettes (who seem very confused when I inform them I like women).

    Anyway, I do wonder what a fight there will look like.

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    • I’ve witnessed a fight between a drag queen and a teenage dude once in my time at Minneapolis gay bars. I was merely passing through one of the areas of the bar when my attention was drawn by a very tall woman yelling “What did you say? Mother@#%@er what did you say?!? Rita, hold my purse!” I don’t know what provoked the altercation but I do remember vividly that a woman (I assume Rita) did hold the lady’s purse (it was gold sequined and so was the woman’s dress) and the lad fared very poorly and eventually fled. This was early in my formative years as a young gay man and has imbued me with a healthy instinct to be polite and deferential around drag queens.

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  4. I have a similar thought about how memory works. We’ve all read about cases where the perpetrator was originally described as 6’4″ and muscular with a shaved head, the person convicted for the crime was 5’7″, skinny, and dreadlocked, and the same eye-witnesses all swore it was him. While the original misidentification probably came from some slight resemblance and the witnesses being pushed to name somebody, by the trial, they’ve gone over the events so often with the defendant in mind that their memories have been completely remade. When he pictures the assault, the victim, who should remember that the guy beating him up towered over him, genuinely sees the face of the runt who’s being railroaded.

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    • There’s actually a fair amount of research on just such phenomena. Elizabeth Loftus, who is one of the most important psychologists of the last 100 years, has been the driving force there. I actually worked on a couple studies of eyewitness testimony with another psychologist as an undergraduate research assistant. It’s fascinating stuff, and not a little bit disturbing.

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      • It’s a lot disturbing. Human memory is crap (well, for these purposes anyway). If there’s any upside at all to the 24/7-electronically-surveilled future we have in front of us, it’s that maybe at some point we’ll stop convicting people unless there’s actual footage of them committing the crime.

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      • True, but not what we are discussing. Presumably the victim’s visual system didn’t make up his assault, and was, generally speaking, able to see the guy who was kicking his ass just fine.

        It’s just that later, that information is not necessarily trustworthy, due to the way memories are “stored” (almost a misnomer, since it is more like they are re-created each time, as Burt’s OP explains).

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      • Glyph,
        I know someone with a photographic memory. When he’s using it (takes up a ton of brainpower, he’s functionally illiterate while using it), he can recall all the details he’s seen.
        (Pretty precisely — his prioperception isn’t too good, but he can navigate a room in the dark until his feet get him too far from where he thinks he is).

        Thing is? If he doesn’t look at something, he’s got holes in his memory. He’s at least able to know what he hasn’t seen.

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      • Now that was a classic Kimmie comment.

        The only possible reply is something equally imaginary:

        I have a friend whose sinus cavities are so cavernous that he can lift 10 pound weights simply by breathing in normally.

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      • Kim, there is no such thing as photographic memory. No one has photographic memory. Not your friend, not anyone. It’s a made up thing.

        And even if it were a thing, the “functionally illiterate” part makes no sense (that is, those words don’t make any sense in that context).

        In short, you’re doing that thing where you just make stuff up.

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      • he can navigate a room in the dark until his feet get him too far from where he thinks he is)

        If you aren’t where you think you are, then by definition it would seem that in fact you’re not doing a good job of navigating.

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      • I’m going with myth.
        There are documented cases of people having a prodigious(AR Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist), but in most cases the people had a “memory palace” approach to retaining data, it wasn’t photographic, and not really suitable for remembering the details of bar brawls

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      • Jack,
        exactly how useful for “remembering a barfight” would fifty photographs be?
        … particularly if you can’t order them?

        there’s a reason i’m terming it “photographic memory”…

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    • Chris, would you be willing to put together a post on the whole photographic memory thing? Because despite the folktale nature of this subthread, I think it’s a really interesting subject. And although no one has a “photographic” memory, I have known several folks with astonishing powers of recall, heavily visual in focus. Actually I’m fascinated by people with prodigious powers of recall in general, although it’s a topic I’m basically ignorant about.

      Anyway, I would love to see what you, particularly, would write about how that stuff actually works, given how crappy and unreliable human memories are – and yet how incredibly much accurate information some of us are able to stuff into and successfully retrieve out of them in the right contexts.

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  5. The bad news is that people are pretty much always going to say things that make it look like they have no idea what the fish they’re talking about when those statements are scrutinized, so often no witness is particularly credible or reliable.

    Why do people answer these questions in such a way?

    I mean, can a lawyer demand that they answer in a particular way? Aren’t witnesses ever sat down across from a lawyer who will say, “they will ask questions like this, which are designed to make you look like an idiot, so you answer them that way not that other way.”?

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  6. I vaguely remember discussion of a law in NYC that would require bouncers to acquire certain training and/or certification. The goal was to create a better class of bouncer AND simplify lawsuits; either the bouncer was properly trained and applied that training consistent with what the law demanded (thus mitigating responsibility) OR he was not properly trained or applied that training inconsistently with the law and responsibility was assured. Have you heard anything about this, either in NYC or elsewhere? If this isn’t an actual practice, what are your thoughts on such laws?

    When I lived in Manhattan, I got to know a handful of bouncers pretty well. They can be some of your best friends in the business. There was clear difference between those who were trained and those who were not. The guys who understood how to interact with customers, how to survey a situation before violence arose, and how to quickly and effectively respond to violence were wonderful. The meatheads who got off on bashing skulls… not so much.

    The one bar fight I witnessed up close was at my regular hangout with a well trained staff. Seemingly out of nowhere*, a large crowd of people formed a circle around two combatants. I turned just in time and saw the bouncers swoop in before even a punch was thrown. Combatants were grabbed and hustled down a flight of stairs into a basement and then out to street level through the bilco doors. The bouncers came back through, grabbed anyone left who seemed instigating or even considering fighting, and repeated the process. In less than 30 seconds, all involves parties (and possibly some innocent ones who got swept up in the clear out) were outside, the rest of the bar goers were safely indoors, and the bouncers stood like a wall between the two. Cops were called though I think people dispersed before their arrival. From what I could see through the window, no one seemed sufficiently harmed by the interaction. All-in-all, it was a rather effective method of responding to violence, and clearly one the staff was trained on. Once emotions calmed down, a bartender (who backed up the bouncers) and I shared a shot. When I invited the bouncer over to have one on my tap, he politely declined: “Still on duty.” A pro’s pro, that guy. And probably something the bar needed: they got a ton of college students from Columbia and served beer at obscenely low prices with no food menu.

    *As discussed in the OP, there was surely a serious of precipitating events which were unknown to anyone not directly involved.

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    • IMO the bartender was being very unprofessional by drinking with you. The barkeep is the captain of the ship, and needs to be sober, because other staff report to her. Pouring drinks (properly) requires control and timing. Overseeing others, especially deciding when they need to be cut off, requires good judgment. If it’s my place, my rule is simple: Employees do not drink during their shifts. Period.

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      • Fairly common in NYC. Not constant drinking to get a serious buzz, but every hour or so maybe do a shot with someone. Things loosen up later in the evening or if it’s a known quiet night and it’s mostly regulars, the opposite happens if it’s a busy night.

        Most places are just doing beer and simple cocktails (shot of booze + 1 mixer), so a close eye for detail isn’t that necessary.

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      • Tod, a friend of mine went through the TABC training in order to be a bar tender, many years ago, and I think I remember her telling me that it’s illegal in Texas as well. However, if I’ve learned one thing about Austin bars and clubs, it’s that they consider the law to be optional for the most part. Sometimes to an absurd (and costly) degree.

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      • FWIW, the bartender was male (did I accidently use a female pronoun there?) and a very large male at that. Also, I think he was either a manager or a co-owner, though I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse. One shot was unlikely to do him in. I will say it was fairly common for bartenders to do shots with customers. Only one bartender in my time there (and I probably averaged at least one visit per week) ever got to a point where he seemed incapable of performing his job. That said, rules against such behavior (be they legal or bar policy) don’t seem like the worst idea ever.

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      • You are obviously not from Wisconsin. At every single bar in the state every bartender drinks, all the time, without exception.

        Also, in several (million?) hours in a bar I have never seen a bar fight. The closest would be several times when things are about to get rowdy and you hear the bartender yell “OUTSIDE!”. People would take their drama outside. Sometimes both parties will come back into the bar afterwards and continue drinking.

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      • I live within 5 minutes, walking, of about a dozen bars, and I spent a fair amount of time at a couple of them (far too much at one of them). I’ve never seen a bar fight at any of those (though there’s another neighborhood bar, something of an Austin legend, where I’ve seen a couple fights). Downtown, however, where there are thousands upon thousands of people in a strip of bars and clubs, all drinking heavily, mostly young, and mostly there in groups (often large groups), fights are pretty much a constant. I suspect how frequent fights are is really a function of the atmosphere and the density (of bars and people).

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      • OK, seriously, how many Cheeseheads, current or former, are on this site? Most places the comment community can’t place Wisconsin on a map, and here we have a league full of people who know how to pronounce Wauwautosa

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      • MRS,

        That number depends whether Blaise Pascal is thought to be still a member of the community (which I get the feeling he isn’t by his own choice). To my knowledge, it’s you, me, & Burt currently. Am I missing some people? I must be. But then there’s, eg., Hanley, who lives one state over, North, who lives one over in the other direction, a Chicago contingent, and then just a generally extremely geographically literate population. So people know about the Land of Cheese.

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      • I grew up in Wisconsin (Plymouth, then Cascade, then Madison). The good people of Wisconsin did not hold it against me that I was born a FIB, since I was 4 when we moved up there.

        I know how to pronounce it all. As a matter of fact, my Wisconsin upbringing made it a lot easier to learn all the names out here in WA, which also has a heavy Native American influence (Sequim is not See-kwim, but rather skwim, etc.).

        Wauwautosa was a gimmie, since I’ve heard people mangle Waukesha (Waa-kee-shaw, as opposed to the correct Wah-ke-shah).

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      • Also: I have NEVER seen a bartender cut anybody off. EVER. In Wisconsin if you can stand at the bar long enough to order a drink you WILL be served.

        Maybe that is why we don’t have the problems with the barfights when people get cut off?

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  7. Re: the frequency of fights involving members of the LGBTQ community

    I wonder how much of this is a function of concern among them that what starts as a one-on-one fight could quickly become a one-on-everyone fight.

    I was in the local watering hole here one time watching football… Cowboys and Giants. Tony Romo through an interception or fumbled or otherwise did a Tony Romo thing and some drunk buffoon (it was a Sunday night game, so who knows how long he was drinking) started loudly chanting, “TO-NY HO-MO!” My friends and I… all “decadent coastal liberals” to borrow a phrase someone threw out recently… were appalled. “What the fuck?” But when we looked around, we were in a very small minority of people who seemed bothered by the statement. Most everyone was laughing and/or high-fiving the guy. Part of me wanted to speak up, but I feared that I might quickly find myself toe-to-toe with the majority of this bar. And that would be as a straight man. I imagine such fear might be even stronger amongst folks who identify as LGBTQ.

    To boil it down, while I am not one to fight, I would be more likely to fight if I knew I was going to throw down with one individual whom I had beef with than if I knew I might be throwing down with an entire group of people who were involved for no other reason than hating who I was inherently.

    This is pure speculation, mind you.

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    • This situation is pregnant for violence,

      If you had challenged the chanter, he’d have been fueled to fight at least as much by the moral support of everyone laughing at his jokes and high-diving him as by the chemical combination of football adrenaline and too-high-to-drive levels of ethyl alcohol in his blood. Add to that psychosexual insecurities triggered by having to confront homosexuality and being accused of morally wrongful conduct, and you’ve just challenged the alpha male of the troop for mating privileges.

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      • It struck me that this man felt little doubt about voicing such a complaint and really struck me that it was met with applause. It was not unlike the story I’ve told about the Maine bar where a similarly intoxicated individual bluntly referred to Michael Vick as a “nigger”. As appalling as such behavior may be, some things just aren’t worth fighting over, especially if it is likely to be a losing battle. Better to recognize, “I would rather not be in a place that welcomes, encourages, or applauds such behavior,” and move on. Yet another strike against our current (and soon-to-be-former) town.

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    • I have a lot more respect for your intelligence because you didn’t challenge him. Discretion being the better part of valor and all that.

      Besides changing Tony Romo to Tony Homo, while childish, isn’t a crime against humanity. I would say a majority of Giants fans call him that, including myself. But if you challenged me on it, I wouldn’t take it as fighting words. I would just roll my eyes and go about my business.

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  8. The only bar fight I ever witnessed was over – true story – a vacuum cleaner.

    Jerk #1 had purchased some really expensive, multiple-attachment, vacuum cleaner and was bragging about it in the bar. (Apparently she loved it.) Jerk #2, who was not part of the group, loudly announced that #1 had been ripped off and the product was junk (no corroborative info was ever offered for this statement). There was a fair amount of loud I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I? back and forth for a few minutes and then petered out.

    I think the staff assumed things had passed the danger point and weren’t as alert as they could have been. So when #2 picked up a chair and threw at #1’s torso and knocked him down, it was a shock to everyone. Then #2 piled on top of him and the rolling around began. And the insulting. And the grunting. And the bystanders actively bystanding not doing anything. Police arrived, both arrested.

    John Wayne did these things much better.

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  9. OK, with all these “The only bar fight I’ve ever witnessed…” stories, I’m starting to feel like there might be something wrong with either where I live or where I choose to hang out. Seriously, when my night life was more… active than it is now, it was not uncommon for me to witness (relatively close) multiple bar fights in an evening. I don’t think I’ve ever been on Sixth Street on a Friday or Saturday without witnessing at least one. Hell, they usually spill out into the street, where the entire Austin police department is waiting. They keep at least 2 paddy wagons (is that not politically correct?) downtown on the weekends, mostly for fighters.

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    • You know the Irish association to that term had never occurred to me? If I thought about it at all, I might have dimly assumed it referred to padlocks on the back of the vehicle or something.

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    • Weirdly, all the bar fights I’ve witnessed have been post-spill-out-onto-the-street (as I was walking past). But then, in Montreal, even drunk and violent people are usually polite enough to take it outside (followed by a herd of onlookers, of course). Ah, Canada.

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      • If they are right in the doorway of the bar and pretty obviously drew people out of the bar to watch, I tend to think of them as “bar fights”. This might be influenced by the culture of Montreal generally, in which (when I lived there), there was generally a sense of permeability between the bar/club and the outdoor area right around the bar/club.

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    • A good idea for a city where a lot of bars and clubs are clustered together. I’d expect a strong police presence on, say, Bourbon Street in New Orleans in the evenings just on general principles.

      Los Angeles is a bit more spread out; there are clusters of such businesses, of course, but there are watering holes all over the place, especially in the, shall we say, pre-gentrified neighborhoods.

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    • The two worst drunken bar/outside of the bar fights I’ve witnessed involved a drive-by stabbing (seriously) and shooting (seemingly) randomly into a crowd. As I think about it now, it’s a wonder I made it to my current age, and I’m a friggin’ pacifist.

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    • When I say I only really witnessed one fight, I mean that I’ve only really seen one fight happen right in front of my face. I’ve been in bars where fights erupted across the room or just outside. I’ve seen them from afar. And I’ve had friends who’ve been in numerous bar fights but never when I was there. I almost got into a fight once with a guy who wanted to fight me but didn’t want to throw the first punch and I’m not one to throw the first punch so I just smiled at him and walked off whistling after a few terse moments.

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    • Not sure what this says about us then.

      The closest I ever came to witnessing a bar fight, I only got to see half of it because I was the other half. It was not really a fight since I didn’t hit the guy back, because of at least: (a) he was the size of a bear and had another bear’s body mass worth of friends backing him, (b) the bouncers must have been watching the buildup, and were on us in no time flat, and (c) I’m both uninclined to and incompetent at violence.

      It also wasn’t technically a bar, but an “afterhours club” permitted to stay open late because it had no liquor license, and hence catered largely to a too-strung-out-on-stimulants-to-go-to-bed-after-closing-time crowd. Apparently everyone but us knew better than to go there – everyone I’ve told this story has reacted with “You went to that afterhours? Oh dear, I’m glad you got out alright.”

      I’d have to ask to be sure, but the only two bar fights my wife ever witnessed were the aforementioned one with me in it, and a proper fight at a proper bar, in which one of the combatants was also a member of her party.

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  10. My experience is nowhere near as comprehensive as yours, Burt. I have seen a fair amount of fights, almost all of them during the year and a half that I worked in a bar, but only a couple that led to any kind of real injury. And my experience matches yours, in that all the fights that led to injury started when someone gets too drunk and is asked to leave.

    The biggest cause of *all* fights I witnessed is one you don’t mention, and my guess is that it has to do with the type of bar I worked in. It was a local chain that tried to be a mid-price-point bar and grill during lunch and dinner and a meat market dance bar for the early-to-mid 20s set after 9:00. On promotion nights (e.g.: dollar drink night, ladies nights, etc.) the place would be packed, and people who had not snagged a table stood around with very little personal space. A lot of fights started, basically, because young drunk men who were already agitated by being crammed together and jostled around had one too many other young drunk guys accidentally bump into them, and went off.

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    • Regarding the fights in the crowded meet market: I’d lump those in with “many cases where a drunk interpreted someone’s statements or actions as an invitation to resolve conflict through violence” but I wholeheartedly credit your observation that the crowding itself is a profoundly agitating factor. Crowding can also make it more difficult for staff to take control of the situation.

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  11. During my Pro/Am drinking days I saw more than a few fights, mostly cropping up due to the holy game of Pool. These fights involved everything from whose quarters were next on the table, to someone bumping a table during a shot on the eight ball. From the latter I watched a woman crack a cue against a mans head hard enough to knock him out. I am not sure what the cause of the worst of these was, but I did see a man get pushed down on the table and get stabbed 14 times. This never went to trial, he plead guilty.
    The thing that always struck me was just how quickly things escalate. People get mad, scream at each other, and usually one wanders off. Or maybe there is a little monkey dancing, two people posturing, knowing that their friends will pull them back, what have you. Moving past that sort of background noise, emotional type verbal violence to actually cause someone physical harm always seemed just lightning fast. I guess because I was never thinking that throwing a shot glass would be the appropriate thing to do right now.
    I am pretty glad that I don’t drink like that anymore.

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  12. I can’t find the study now, but I distinctly seem to recall reading somewhere that the average IQ of people admitted to the ER with violence-related injuries was in the high 80s. — Not because stupid people are more likely to lose fights, but because smarter people generally try to avoid getting into them in the first place.

    (This could be because lead poisoning has been a major factor in reducing IQ, and lead poisoning also causes impulsivity, rather than the less intelligent all tending more to violent tendencies.)

    The closest thing I can actually find online right now is
    this, but I don’t know that one should generalize from a prison population to the general population.

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  13. As a patron or bartender, always remember to shed your necktie before the fight starts! It a noose around your neck.

    Tony Homo! For Giant fans, this will be good for laughs next season.

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    • I remember, when hoodies started to become really popular as club/bar wear, seeing the hood of a guy’s hoodie used to hold his head down so that he couldn’t square up or get away as he was punched repeatedly by the other guy (before the bouncers got there and broke it up). I imagine pretty much any loose clothing becomes a burden in such brawls.

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  14. Pingback: How Bar Brawls Begin | The Penn Ave Post

  15. Well, boys and girls, I had a middle age autistic patient who had “photographic memory”, that is, perfect recall of everything that came within his view; e.g., what day of the week was July 6, 1967, what he had for breakfast, and what color his socks were, but nothing else except his own immediate experience.
    If that’s not photographic memory maybe someone has a better label for it.

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  16. As a cop, it’s my opinion that many establishments flirt with lawsuit disaster in the way they deal with unruly patrons.

    I know the “reality” of what goes on in some establishments and the relationships between law enforcement and some club owners/bouncers, but in general terms the way bar security SHOULD deal with unruly patrons is by telling them to leave and calling the police if they refuse. Many times the threat of the police arriving is enough. Yes…sometimes security has no alternative but to use force but I have also seen my share of bouncers arrested due to their ignorance of the law and what they are authorized to do.

    http://tgace.com/2008/11/17/bouncers-and-bodyguards/

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  17. I worked my way through university as a bouncer, and then a while after, about 7 or 8 years altogether I guess. Kind of a horrible job, actually, its basically boredom boredom boredom boredom FEAR boredom boredom.

    In that time I saw a fairly considerable number of bar fights, but I suspect very few of them went to court– so he author has a bit of a selection bias there I think.

    A few observations– in my experience there were about 8-10 guy fights for every girl fight. Girl fights were, however, usually much nastier and more volatile. A lot of the time guys were kinda posturing and were grateful when we showed up and allowed them to retire from the field with honor intact. The girls mostly wanted to inflict harm on someone and could turn their fury on us if thwarted. Also they often had boyfriends pleased as punch to be fought over but inclined to take a dim view of the little woman being manhandled. Or at least honor bound to intervene. Cat-fights are simply the worst, I hated them a lot.

    If a bar fight can be said to have been ‘won,’ observation suggests that the guy who strikes first usually ‘wins’– especially if he can lay hands on a weapon of some kind and/or isn’t squeamish about low blows and such– the Marquis of Queensbury didn’t hang out in bars, at least not the ones I worked in. If you want to be all drunkenly manly and have the other guy take the first swing, congratulations, you are probably going to be the one getting the ride in the ambulance.

    Don’t pick a fight with a bouncer. Just don’t. It is amazing how many drunks (usually young dudes) want to try this. Trust me, he’s done it a lot more often than you have, and besides, he’s sober. And he has help. And you’ve just really irritated him, for him this isn’t recreation, its work. It isn’t going to end well. I only got injured a couple of times, and in both cases it was by drunk women (see above).

    Also, be aware that if you get into a bar fight it is highly likely you will end your night out with a free ride downtown in a police car. The police rarely care who started it or what provoked it, and it really isn’t the favorite part of their job so they aren’t in a terribly good mood about it all. Just sayin.

    I can’t remember if it was in the story or the comments, but yeah, overcrowded standing crowds and people bumping into each other is what starts most fights. Also, pool tables are bad places, what with the combination of contests, hard to remember when you’re drunk rules, real and imagined cheating, and cash on the table, all make for a witches’ brew, especially since pool tables come pre-equiped with weapons.

    Also, yes, bar-fights do not last very long. Hollywood gives a lot of drunk people some very inaccurate expectations about what interpersonal violence is like in the real world (especially between intoxicated amateurs). And in anycase my colleagues and I were paid money to ensure that they did not go on for very long. But not enough money to risk actually getting hurt trying to prevent some drunk asshole from getting hurt, all we wanted was to eject the involved parties with as little mess as possible.

    (I think I seriously hurt someone only once, was a young dude who pulled a knife on me and I was shocked and badly frightened and kinda lost my temper. He was small, I’m not; he was really drunk, I was sober; I had been in a few bar fights before and I don’t think he had. He didn’t press charges. 99% of the time bouncing isn’t about fighting, its about moving people. I still feel a little bad about that one.)

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  18. Pingback: Bookmarks for January 26th from 17:28 to 22:22 : Extenuating Circumstances

  19. Back when I still had a nightlife, the gay bar I would frequent was on the dive-ish end of the spectrum. There were divier bars in town where I went rarely, so maybe they had their share of fights. But I never saw one.

    The closest I ever got actually involved the guy I was dating at the time, who got cold cocked by another guy I knew vaguely who was really loaded. I don’t know if my then-boyfriend had it coming (he might’ve), but I do remember him lying on the sidewalk while I crouched over him as menacingly as possible and told his assailant to walk away. Which his friends promptly made him do.

    So I guess you could say I was tangentially involved in the only bar “fight” I’ve ever seen, and it did happen at a gay bar. But I spent lots and lots of time there (ah, my misspent youth!) and never saw any others. And it was really just one punch.

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  20. A Metafilter comment points out “His selection set is heavily biased by the coverage selection of the insurance company he was working for. — posted by Mitheral at 1:41 AM on January 27”

    This is true. Also biased in that the fight had to produce (perceived) injuries bad enough to make it worthwhile to file a suit, and facts sufficiently in doubt as to make it worthwhile to resist one.

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  21. Pingback: Bar Fights and Public Policy | Ordinary Times

  22. I’m retired now, but for much of the time I was a litigator my work consisted largely of defending police officers in civil actions arising out of their work. Many of the cases involved allegations of excessive force with injuries ranging from twisted arms to death (mostly the latter). I agree, of course, that memory is almost always unreliable in such cases, but the problem of unintentionally false testimony goes deeper than that. Folks who are involved in – or even merely witness – a violent confrontation usually don’t accurately perceive what is going on, so even if they faultlessly recalled their initial perceptions they would still get it wrong. I’ve discussed this problem with psychologists I’ve hired to help me make sense of these cases. It appears a big part of the problem is that, when we get into fight-or-flight mode, all our energy is devoted to the job of surviving for the next few seconds, with none left over for accurate perception and recording of the event. The organism’s urge to survive so thoroughly dominates that it can cause the senses intentionally (as it were) to deceive consciousness. For example, those officers who insist they saw a gun in the hand of the guy they shot, even though the physical evidence conclusively shows he was not armed, are not necessarily lying. The organism doesn’t want consciousness to waste precious microseconds trying to decide whether the guy is armed, so it passes on a clear, albeit false, perception that he is.

    From a defense attorney’s point of view the problem is made much more difficult by the pressure a police officer experience to provide a prompt, detailed, written account of such an incident. Important parts of that account almost always turns out to be demonstrably false, even if given in complete good faith, and especially if a union lawyer assists in its preparation. Dealing with that aspect of the case is one of the great challenges of the job.

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    • Oh, I’m sure! Cops are human like the rest of us; they get the adrenaline going and that plays games with the mind, even in the best-of-faith situations. The officer is going to want to survive, to be unhurt, and to protect her fellow officers. Violence is the last thing an officer wants to have happening. They must dread being called in for domestic disputes!

      And then, while I believe and hope that only a small minority of cops go over the line into unreasonable use of force, there are some cops who do. They are going to remember things with the I-was-the-good-guy sort of lensing I discus in the OP.

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      • Of course. And sometimes they don’t misremember; they just lie. Those are the easy cases: either the officer’s employer denies indemnity so the case is not financially viable for the plaintiff; or you settle as quickly as you can. Or, if the plaintiff tries to make out a case for direct liability against the governmental employer, you get a legally and factually complicated case that is either won on motion or settled because it’s too expensive to defend.

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    • I’ll still hold the cop to the higher standard.
      He’s sober, for one thing.
      For another, it’s his job.
      He’s not supposed to (in an ideal situation)
      have adrenaline running through his veins.

      It should be ordinary. Or we should have
      them used to the adrenaline, and have that
      be ordinary.

      Again, I say this in the context of people dying,
      because a sober, professional man in a pugillistic fight,
      thought he saw a gun.

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  23. Great article. One quick correction on units: Bolt runs 100 yards=300 ft in 9s. So the bouncer is merely running world record pace.

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