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Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

Gould v. Taco Bell, 239 Kan. 564, 722 P.2d 511 (1986).

This case addresses the following issues:

Is A Business Responsible For Protecting Its Patrons From Violent Acts Of Other Patrons?
Can A Failure To Act Rise To The Level Of Willful Or Wanton Behavior, Making An Award Of Punitive Damages Appropriate?

In this case, the Kansas Supreme Court tackled a difficult issue: what must a business do in order to protect its customers from violent acts of other customers? Id. at 567. Ultimately, the court found that if the business knows or should know about the danger posed by other patrons, it must take “reasonable care to forestall or prevent” any harm to the customer. Id. Further, failing to act in such a situation could demonstrate a wanton disregard for the rights of others, making punitive damages appropriate. Id. at 572-73.

The plaintiff in this case was a customer at a local Taco Bell restaurant. Id. at 565. She and a friend were dining at the restaurant around 10:30 p.m. after leaving a local bar. Id. Also in the restaurant was a group of six individuals that appears to be intoxicated. Id. The large group was being quite loud and vulgar, so much so that an employee of Taco Bell asked them to quiet down. Id. The group began to leave when one member of the group called out to the plaintiff, provoking a physical altercation. Id. at 566. Despite the physical fight, the manager of the restaurant only called out to the aggressor: “Why don’t you just leave? You did this two weeks before in here.” Id. The fight continued in the parking lot, and the police were finally called after plaintiff’s companion threatened to jump over the counter to call the police herself. Id. Ultimately, a jury award both compensatory and punitive damages to the plaintiff on the theory of premise liability. Id.

The court began by describing the general inquiry into when a business owner must act and how they must act to protect patrons. Id. at 567. The law in Kansas is well-settled that the need to act arises when “a careful and prudent person would be put on notice of the potential danger.” Id. As far as which actions must be taken, the question is again largely one based on the circumstances at play, requiring the exercise of “reasonable care to forestall or prevent” such dangers from occurring. Id. Kansas courts had previously held that a bar was required to protect patrons from a rowdy group in the bar that had been causing trouble over a period of hours. Id. at 569. Additionally, the court noted that other states had applied similar duties to act when other patrons posed known dangers to another. Id. at 569-71. Relying on these cases, the court found that this case has sufficient facts to support the jury’s findings that Taco Bell had notice of the danger and should have acted to protect patrons from this known danger. Id. at 570.

The next issue was whether Taco Bell’s failure to protect the plaintiff was enough to justify the imposition of punitive damages. Id. at 571. Punitive damages are “imposed to punish the wrongdoer for malicious, vindictive or willful and wanton invasion of the injured party’s rights.” Id. The court did not agree with Taco Bell’s argument that an affirmative act is necessary to impose punitive damages. Id. at 572. Instead, “acts of omission as well as acts of commission can be wanton since reckless disregard and indifference are characterized by failure to act when action is called for to prevent injury.” Id. Thus, the court affirmed both liability and the award of punitive damages. Id. at 573.

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