Can I Sue for Being Kicked Out of a Bar?
Yes, you may be able to sue a bar for kicking you out because of your race, religion, sex, disability, national origin, or other protected group. However, bars can legally kick you out for almost any other reason, particularly for a good reason such as if you're being obnoxious. But because a bar is a public accommodation, they can't discriminate against you because of your membership in one of these protected groups.
Proving illegal discrimination can be complicated. You have to show evidence of intent, and it's not like bouncers are prone to admitting that they kicked you out of the bar for an unlawful reason. You may benefit from having an experienced civil rights lawyer on your side who can give you legal advice about your options and help guide you through the process. If you were injured while being kicked out, consider consulting a personal injury attorney who could advise you about bringing a personal injury case.
Pubs, Taverns, and Bars
People have been enjoying alcohol for thousands of years. In fact, alcohol may be one of humanity's earliest inventions. The oldest recorded use dates back to 7000-6600 BC in China. Wine was fermented in the Caucuses around 6000 BC. The Sumerians brewed beer in 3400-3000 BC. In the Americas, the Aztecs made pulque from the agaves that are used today to make tequila. The Incas brewed chicha, a beer, from corn.
Bars, as we have come to know them, have been around for centuries. The Tabard, a tavern made famous in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, was established in 1307 to accommodate pilgrims on the road to the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket. The earliest use of the term “bar," however, can be traced to the 1600s, when it generally referred not to the entire establishment, but just the serving area. People later began using the term to describe the entire drinking place.
Céad Mile Fáilte
Suppose it's St. Patrick's Day. You decide to dress up in green and head to Murphy's Pub with some friends to tip one (or two) to the Irish. There was good food, great music, and grand craic. You're having a most enjoyable night in a safe environment.
Until the door opens and a group of orange-dressed hooligans walks in. They are loud and rambunctious, but not more so than those who donned the green. One of the Irish bouncers, a sturdy lad, heads over to a particularly loud young man (let's say his name is William), takes him by the arm, and shoves him to the door. As he throws him out, the bouncer shouts, “We don't serve Proddies here on St. Paddy's Day! Don't let us see you come in here again!"
You have no idea what a “Proddy" is, so you ask the bartender as he's refilling your Guinness. The bartender smirks and tells you that a “Proddy" is a Protestant.
You're not sure why, but that really rubs you the wrong way. The bouncer threw William out of the bar because he's a Protestant? In America? They can't do that, can they?
Nope. Sure can't. At least, not legally.
Federal and State Anti-Discrimination Laws
The federal government and the states have laws that prohibit discrimination in public accommodations, such as bars. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act create “protected classes." If you are a member of one of the following protected classes, federal law prohibits someone from discriminating against you in a public accommodation because of:
- National Origin
- Real or perceived disability
Most states have expanded this list of protected classes with their own civil rights laws. These laws prohibit discrimination against the following classes:
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
Let's go back to poor William. The bouncer assumed William was a Protestant because he wore orange on St. Patrick's Day. Further, the bouncer used a religious slur against Protestants by calling William a “Proddy." A reasonable person could conclude that the bouncer kicked William out of the bar because of his religion. That would violate state and federal civil rights laws. William could sue the bar.
Proving Intentional Discrimination
The challenge William faces is proving intentional discrimination. In order to prove discrimination, he will need to present evidence tending to show that the reason the bouncer kicked him out of the bar was because of his religion.
He could do this through direct and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence tends to prove a fact in itself without the need to draw an inference. Circumstantial evidence doesn't prove a fact unless you draw an inference. Both can be powerful in court.
Let's start with direct evidence. That is testimony, a document, or something else that tends to prove a fact without the need to draw an inference. William could call you as a witness. You could testify based on your own personal knowledge about what you heard. The bouncer's statement, “we don't serve Proddies here on St. Paddy's Day," tends to show that the reason William suffered his unceremonious eviction from the bar was because of his perceived religion. No need to draw an inference; the statement itself is direct evidence of intentional discrimination.
William could also use your testimony to establish circumstantial evidence of religious discrimination. Recall that William was wearing orange in an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day. Wearing orange on a day you're supposed to wear green doesn't prove anything, on its face, beyond a peculiar fashion choice. For it to be circumstantial evidence of religious discrimination, William would need to build a connection between wearing orange and the bouncer's belief that William was a Protestant.
Think of circumstantial evidence as a chain between the evidence and the fact you are trying to prove. You need to establish the links to make the chain. To create the links, William would have to provide evidence of the following:
- He was wearing orange in an Irish bar on St. Patrick's Day
- Certain Protestants in Northern Ireland would wear orange on St. Patrick's Day to tweak the Catholics during the Troubles
- The bouncer was a Catholic from Northern Ireland
Your testimony could create some of these links. You could swear that William was wearing orange on St. Patrick's Day. You could also swear that Murphy's was an Irish bar. But William would need additional evidence to establish the other links (the old prejudice, the bouncer's familiarity with the prejudice, and the bouncer's nationality). If William could offer this evidence and create these links, you could infer that the bouncer believed William was Protestant because he was wearing orange on St. Patrick's Day.
What Can You Recover in a Discrimination Case?
Let's say that William finds an attorney, gets contact information and a phone number for a skilled civil rights attorney, and hires them. They decide to sue the bar for religious discrimination and win. What can he get?
The first thing William's lawyer might ask for is injunctive relief. An injunction is a court order compelling someone to do or not do something. If you violate an injunction, the court can hold you in contempt. That typically results in financial penalties.
William likes Murphy's and would like to become a regular, despite what the bouncer did. He could ask the court for an injunction compelling Murphy's to lift his permanent ban from the bar.
If the court issues such an injunction and Murphy's doesn't let him return, the judge could hold the bar owner in contempt. If the judge gets really mad, they could theoretically find the bar owner in criminal contempt and recommend that law enforcement go knocking on Murphy's door in a criminal referral.
William's lawyer would ask for compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are monies intended to compensate someone for a loss. They are intended to make you whole. Compensatory damages include lost wages, medical bills, harm to your reputation, out-of-pocket expenses, and pain and suffering.
Say the bouncer screwed up William's shoulder when he threw him out of the bar. William had to see a doctor and get physical therapy. An award of compensatory damages could include an amount to pay off these bills. William may also be able to recover for, among other things, the humiliation of being thrown out of the bar and the pain and suffering he sustained for personal injury.
William's lawyer will probably seek punitive damages. Punitive damages are not intended to compensate you for a loss. They are intended to punish a wrongdoer for outrageous behavior and to deter others from engaging in similar misconduct. You need to show actual malice or reckless indifference to your civil rights.
In some states, the amount you can recover is capped. In other states, the sky's the limit. (Actually, the U.S. Constitution is the limit, but that almost never comes into play unless the punitive damage award exponentially exceeds the amount of compensatory damages).
Punitive damages are hard to get — you really need to show extreme and outrageous conduct — but in William's case, they are worth asking for. Throwing someone out of a bar because of their religion is deeply offensive and could be considered extreme and outrageous. Likewise, it's entirely unacceptable in our society and is the sort of thing you'd want to deter others from doing. William may not win, but he certainly has a reasonable chance to recover punitive damages.
Court Costs Attorney Fees
William may also be able to recover his court costs and attorney fees. In most circumstances, a party is responsible for paying their own lawyers. However, the Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Act of 1976 permits a judge, in their discretion, to order the losing party to pay the prevailing party's reasonable attorney fees.
If William wins his case, he would be the prevailing party. Murphy's Bar could be ordered by the judge to pay the skilled civil rights attorney hired as long as their fees were reasonable under the circumstances. If the judge believes the lawyer charged too much, they can reduce the amount of fees to what they think is reasonable.
A Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help
William's religious discrimination case against Murphy's is pretty straightforward. However, most civil rights cases can be extremely complicated. As we have shown, proof is often a hurdle you have to overcome. Not every bouncer is going to tell you why they are kicking you out of a bar.
Consider consulting with an experienced civil rights lawyer. They will be able to give you legal advice about your claim and help you decide whether filing a discrimination case against the bar that kicked you out is worth the time and effort. If a negligent security person injured you, you should consider consulting with a personal injury lawyer about an injury claim. Your lawyer can also negotiate on your behalf with the bar's insurance company.
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