Security guards and bouncers walk a fine line. They're expected to protect patrons from unruly guests and prevent crimes like theft, while at the same time handling troublemakers without causing injuries. Occasionally, they go too far and someone gets hurt. What are your legal rights if you were roughed up by security staff?
After reading this article, you'll better understand:
(Learn about police liability for use of excessive force.)
Most of us have seen a drunk customer get thrown out of a bar, or an unruly concertgoer get booted from a music venue. When trouble starts, the bouncer's or security guard's job is to stop it. Generally speaking, the law lets security staff do what they're hired to do—act, within the bounds of reason, to keep people and property safe.
Specifically, most states allow security staff to use reasonable force, especially when dealing with violent or intoxicated people. If threatened with physical harm or attacked, bouncers and security guards can defend themselves (and others) and use appropriate force to restrain the violent person. Security staff also can briefly detain someone suspected of a crime, usually long enough for police to arrive.
Let's begin with an overview of negligence law for security staff. Then we'll look at an example of how the law might be argued by an injured bar patron.
Security guards and bouncers have a legal duty of care to act as reasonably careful security staff would act under similar circumstances. This duty of care requires that they take reasonable steps to maintain a safe environment and act reasonably when dealing with the public.
Security staff are negligent if their conduct falls below this duty of care, and they might face personal injury claims. When security staff are negligent, they can be held legally responsible—or as the law says, liable—for the harm they cause. Someone who's been injured by a negligent security guard or bouncer can get compensation (what the law calls "damages") for their injuries.
Negligence cases against security guards and bouncers are difficult to prove, largely because the people who file them (called "plaintiffs") were usually involved in some bad behavior before they got hurt. Juries, while not particularly sympathetic to bouncers or security guards, also are not sympathetic to drunken troublemakers.
Imagine this scene at your favorite bar. Doe, a drunk bar customer, becomes belligerent and throws a drink at another customer. The bouncers decide to kick Doe out of the bar, but Doe is too drunk to walk straight. As they remove Doe from the building, bouncers shove Doe in the direction of a stairwell. Doe stumbles, falls down the steps and breaks an arm.
Did the bouncers who threw Doe out of the bar act reasonably or were they negligent? Doe would argue that by shoving a clearly intoxicated person out the door and toward a stairwell, the bouncers were negligent. A reasonable person could predict that Doe would fall down the stairs, the argument would go, so the bouncers had a duty to make sure that didn't happen.
The use of physical force is often a job requirement for security guards and bouncers. Sometimes they cross the line between reasonable force and excessive force. When that happens, security staff can be liable for intentional torts.
An intentional tort is just misconduct done on purpose, as opposed to harm that results from negligence (carelessness). Assault, battery, and false imprisonment are the kinds of intentional tort claims typically brought against security guards and bouncers.
Assault happens when a security guard or bouncer intentionally places a person in fear of immediate physical harm. For example, if a bouncer draws their arm back preparing to strike a customer, the customer might have a tort claim for assault.
An assault turns into a battery when there is physical touching. A fist raised in a threatening way is assault. A punch that connects turns the assault into a battery. If it helps, you can think of a battery as a completed assault.
Assault and battery cases can be difficult to prove against security guards and bouncers because the law allows them to use reasonable physical force to restrain or remove unruly patrons. As a rule, if the amount of force used exceeds the amount of force that's reasonably necessary to accomplish its purpose—meaning to restrain or remove the troublemaker—liability for assault and battery can follow.
False imprisonment is the intentional restriction of another person's freedom. A close cousin is false arrest, which is simply false imprisonment under some legal authority (or as the law calls it, under the "color of law"). Here's another way to look at it: False imprisonment is an arrest (legal or not) that lasts too long.
Security guards or bouncers who detain shoplifters or others sometimes run afoul of false imprisonment or false arrest laws. While the law generally offers security staff a degree of latitude, if they use unreasonable force, intentional tort liability can result.
There are a couple of ways an employer can be found legally responsible for a security guard's or bouncer's misconduct. First, the employer might be vicariously liable, meaning the employer is held responsible for something the security staff did wrong. Second, the employer might be directly responsible for its own negligence.
Security guards and bouncers are sometimes employees of the bars and other venues they protect. Under a legal theory called "respondeat superior" (meaning "let the superior answer") an employer can be held vicariously liable for the harmful actions of its employees. State laws vary regarding when—and precisely how—employers can be held liable for the actions of security staff.
In many states, as long as security staff act within the scope of their employment, their employer can be held vicariously liable. In those states, an employer can successfully avoid liability only when the employee commits an act so outlandish that it's considered beyond the scope of their duties.
An employer can also be directly responsible for its own negligence. When it comes to security staff, injured persons often claim that the employer negligently hired or negligently failed to train the staff.
If you've been injured by a security guard or bouncer, you might want to talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can help you decide on the best way forward and tell you how much time you have to file a lawsuit. Here's how to find a personal injury lawyer who's right for you and your case.