With the Blackhawks heading into the playoffs for their eighth constitutive season, I am again in pigs heaven (though a bit nervous about starting with Duncan Keith in a roller coaster season after his thuggish conduct and well-deserved suspension). Yet, the post-regular season Blackhawks period before we play the Blues will not be without hockey action to watch. Fan John Cooke is suing the team after being crushed by a falling drunken fan at United Center on May 23rd. While widely ridiculed in Chicago, I think that the lawsuit raises some valid issues of negligence and could present an interesting case for issues like proximate cause. Judging from the complaint (which is admittedly one-sided), the “At Your Service” security contractor may be the ultimate misnomer for fans.
It was Game 4 of the 2015 Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks when Cooke and his brother found themselves sitting down one of the increasingly common idiots who come to games to get stumbling drunk and ruin the games for others. As I have said in the past, this is why I rarely take the kids to stadiums despite being a sports lover. Teams clearly value selling booze to drunks than drawing families to stadiums. The fan was described by witnesses in this case in an all too familiar way as a “loud, boisterous and unruly” jerk from the start of the game. He fell on Cooke who suffered a neck injury that required surgery. He is seeking more than $100,000 from the Blackhawks, the United Center and its security contractor At Your Service, LLC. It is not clear why he is not suing the fan who is currently being listed as a “John Doe.” That may be due to the fact that the identity is unknown, but may become known through litigation. The complaint can always be amended if such knowledge and I hope that it is. This fan needs to be sued and a jury might find it odd if he is not named at trial.
He is also suing Levy Premium Foodservice, the company selling food and alcohol at the arena, under the Dram Shop Act, which holds liquor businesses liable for injuries caused by an intoxicated person.
What makes the case interesting is that the drunk was reportedly causing a ruckus before the incident and various people notified security about his obnoxious and juvenile conduct. Yet, according to the complaint, the security staff did nothing.
There is an argument to be made that, particularly when the Blackhawks are profiting from selling copious amounts of alcohol, the team has a responsibility to act when a fan is so inebriated that he is threatening others. It obviously depends on the severity of his conduct and what was observable before the incident. However, fallings in a stadium is an ever-present risk with drunks as we have previously discussed. If they received such warnings from fans, it does trigger a duty to act — at least to confirm that the fan is not endangering or threatening others.
Since this was first period, this may not be a case of over-serving if the fan came to the stadium drunk, though stadiums are still under dram shop obligations in serving obviously intoxicated persons as we have also discussed with prior stories. Regardless of any dram shop angle, there is always simple negligence in such cases.
I am not sure why the team did not quietly settle this case since the publicity alone hurts the team and reaffirms why many families are staying home to watch games. If the man had surgery, this would appear to be a substantive claim and not just a strike suit. As much as I love the Hawks, I would welcome liability if it meant that these teams do a better job in ejecting drunks and jerks from stadiums. I have no problem with serving alcohol so long as people do not ruin these games for others with screaming profanities, stumbling in the stands, or endangering others. That would seem a minimal demand from the other fans who are forking over a lot of money to watch games. This is not to say that we are protected from obnoxious people. That is part of life. I recently went with the family to see the Comedy Steps in Washington (a long-running comedy group). Putting aside that the group has really diminished in past years and was surprisingly unfunny, a couple behind us made the show even more painful with constant talking and commentary. We did not however complain because people can be badly mannered in any forum and you have to live with it. However, serving booze to drunks and having them subject other fans to dangerous or out-of-control conduct is unreasonable and potentially actionable.
What do you think?
Here is the complaint: Complaint