|By R.G. Ratcliffe, Houston
ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 3, 2010--AUSTIN -- The Texas Supreme Court on Friday upheld a $1.48 million judgment in favor of a man injured in a barroom brawl nine years ago at a Lake Conroe resort.
The state's high court said the Del Lago Golf Resort & Conference Center did not take reasonable action to protect patrons of the Grandstand Bar when a violent confrontation grew for more than 90 minutes between a wedding party and a Sigma Chi fraternity reunion.
"Tension at the bar turned into cursing, cursing led to threats, threats grew into pushing and all of the above culminated in a full-scale brawl," Justice Don Willett wrote for the court majority. "Del Lago observed, but did nothing to reduce, this persistent hostility, and while the antagonism may have ebbed and flowed over those 90 minutes, the liquor simply flowed."
The court said nothing in its ruling was intended to say bar owners must call the police on "blowhard" drunks or protect patrons from barroom brawls. But the court said in this case the employees could see the fight brewing and did nothing to call resort security until the fight broke out.
Fight occurred in 2001
Fraternity member Bradley Smith was awarded $1.48 million by a Montgomery County trial court that found the resort was 51 percent to blame for injuries he received in the fight while he bore 49 percent blame for becoming involved. Smith was represented by an Orange law firm, but his hometown was not disclosed in the court ruling.
Smith and fellow fraternity members left a reception about 9 p.m. on June 9, 2001, to go to the bar, which the court described as very busy with seven employees working. Later in the evening, the wedding party arrived and tensions began almost immediately, according to witness testimony.
"These heated confrontations involved cursing, name-calling and hand gestures," Willett wrote.
A Del Lago waitress testified that the patrons appeared drunk and the confrontations were recurring.
One witnesses testified that a near fight broke out when a fraternity member made an offensive comment to the date of one of the wedding party members. The men went chest to chest with "veins popping out of people's foreheads."
But the brawl broke out at closing time as the bar staff tried to force the patrons to leave.
"Smith testified that the staff was literally pushing the hostile parties out of the bar through an exit, prompting a free-for-all," Willett said. "He recalled that it was 'just a madhouse' with punches, bottles, glasses and chairs being thrown and bodies 'just surging.' "
Smith saw a friend shoved to the floor and entered the fray to help him. A wedding party member grabbed Smith in a head lock and the two hit a wall, causing Smith to suffer a skull fracture and brain damage, Willett wrote.
Only after the melee began did bar employees contact resort security to come break up the confrontation.
"We hold that Del Lago had a duty to protect Smith because Del Lago had actual and direct knowledge that a violent brawl was imminent between drunk, belligerent patrons and had ample time and means to diffuse the situation," Willett wrote.
Three justices dissented for various reasons. Justice Phil Johnson said Smith was equally aware of the events and could have simply walked away.
"He complains that Del Lago failed to protect him from a condition he had known of for approximately an hour and a half, but his complaint is bottomed on the injury he suffered at the hands of an unknown assailant in a bar fight he was not initially involved in, yet chose to subject himself to," Johnson wrote.
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