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Harrington v. Crystal Bar, Inc.

Supreme Court of Montana

July 30, 2013

DENNIS AND CATHY HARRINGTON, Plaintiffs and Appellants,
THE CRYSTAL BAR, INC., CAPITAL INSURANCE COMPANIES, and Does 1-5, Defendants and Appellees.

Submitted on Briefs: May 8, 2013

APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Eighteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Gallatin, Cause No. DV 08-313A Honorable Holly Brown, Presiding Judge

For Appellant: John C. Doubek; Doubek, Pyfer & Fox LLP; Helena, Montana

For Appellee: Mark A. Vucurovich; Henningsen, Vucurovich & Richardson, P.C.; Butte, Montana

Jim Rice Justice

¶1 Dennis and Cathy Harrington appeal from the order entered by the Eighteenth Judicial District Court, Gallatin County, granting summary judgment to the Crystal Bar, Inc. on their negligence and liquor liability claims. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

¶2 We restate and consider the following issues:

¶3 1. Did the District Court err in granting summary judgment to the Crystal Bar on the negligence claims?

¶4 2. Did the District Court err in granting summary judgment to the Crystal Bar on the dram shop claim?


¶5 The facts are presented as developed in discovery. During the late evening and early morning of October 6-7, 2007, Dennis Harrington (Harrington) visited the Crystal Bar in Bozeman with a group of friends. Harrington initiated an abrasive conversation with the front door bouncer Duane Aune (Aune), concerning the qualifications required to be a bouncer. To some extent, this conversation also involved Jason Howard (Howard), who was an acquaintance of Aune's and employed as a bouncer at another local bar. Harrington used profanities and admits to the potentially offensive nature of this conversation. The exchange between these individuals escalated, bar manager John Saunders (Saunders) was advised, and Harrington was asked to leave the bar multiple times. Harrington then voluntarily left the bar through the open front door, followed by Howard about 15 or 20 seconds later, followed by Saunders closing the door. An altercation ensued, with Howard hitting Harrington on the head and causing him to fall and strike his head on a car parked in front of the Crystal Bar. Harrington sustained a serious head injury, was rendered unconscious, and was hospitalized. Howard initially began to run, but upon seeing his girlfriend, walked with her around the end of the block and re-entered the Crystal Bar through the back door. A criminal investigation surrounding this incident was conducted. Further factual assertions are set forth below.

¶6 Harrington filed a complaint organized into various sections that set forth overlapping claims of negligence, liquor liability, spoliation of evidence, and punitive damages.[1] The negligence counts generally alleged that the Crystal Bar failed to exercise proper care by adequately screening and training employees, promoted "the risk of conflict" between Harrington and Howard, failed to protect Harrington from Howard, and failed to contact law enforcement, damaging Harrington as a result. The liquor liability, or "dram shop" claim, alleged that the Crystal Bar had served alcohol "to visibly intoxicated patrons" on the night of the incident, increasing the risk of physical violence that ultimately caused harm to Harrington.

¶7 The Crystal Bar moved for summary judgment on the negligence and dram shop claims, relying on the deposition testimony of Howard and Saunders. Harrington filed a response in opposition with supporting affidavits.

¶8 On the negligence claims, the District Court concluded that there were no conflicts in material facts and the Crystal Bar was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The District Court reasoned:

While Harrington and Howard present differing accounts of what might have been said between them, those statements are not material to disposition of the Motion. Harrington states "[t]here was no fight between me and Howard" and that he left when asked by Saunders. . . . Therefore by Harrington's own account, there was no interaction between Harrington and Howard that should have alerted or warned the Crystal Bar employees that Howard posed any danger to Harrington.
On the dram shop claim, the District Court determined it was uncontested that Howard was not intoxicated and had not been served at the Crystal Bar, concluding that the statutory requirements for the claim had not been established and the Crystal Bar was entitled to summary judgment. After receiving confirmation from the parties that all claims had been resolved by its order, the District Court entered final judgment. Harrington appeals.


¶9 A district court's grant or denial of summary judgment is reviewed de novo. Steadele v. Colony Ins. Co., 2011 MT 208, ¶ 14, 361 Mont. 459, 260 P.3d 145 (citations omitted). "Under M. R. Civ. P. 56(c), summary judgment is proper only when no genuine issues of material fact exist and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Steadele, ¶ 14. The evidence must be analyzed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. Shattuck v. Kalispell Regl. Med. Ctr., 2011 MT 229, ¶ 8, 362

Mont. 100, 261 P.3d 1021 (citation omitted). "The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of establishing both the absence of genuine issues of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. If this burden is met, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to establish that a genuine issue of material fact does exist. If the district court determines that no genuine issue of material fact exists, the court then determines whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Corporate Air v. Edwards Jet Ctr. Mont. Inc., 2008 MT 283, ¶ 25, 345 Mont. 336, 190 P.3d 1111 (internal citations omitted). We review a district court's conclusions of law for correctness. Shattuck, ¶ 8 (citation omitted).

¶10 Summary judgment should be granted "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." M. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3) (2011). "A material fact is a fact that involves the elements of the cause of action or defenses at issue to an extent that necessitates resolution of the issue by a trier of fact." Corporate Air, ¶ 24 (citing Arnold v. Yellowstone Mountain Club, LLC, 2004 MT 284, ¶ 15, 323 Mont. 295, 100 P.3d 137). "Summary judgment is an extreme remedy that should never be a substitute for a trial on the merits if a controversy exists over a material fact." Corporate Air, ¶ 24 (citing Mary J. Baker Revoc. Trust v. Cenex Harvest, 2007 MT 159, ¶ 17, 338 Mont. 41, 164 P.3d 851). "Ordinarily, questions of negligence are poorly suited to adjudication by summary judgment and are better left for jury determination at trial." LaTray v. City of Havre, 2000 MT 119, ¶ 15, 299 Mont. 449, 999 P.2d 1010; see also i.e. Scott v. Henrich, 1998 MT 118, ¶ 13, 288 Mont. 489, 958 P.2d 709; Brown v. Demaree, 272 Mont. 479, 483, 901 P.2d 567, 570 (1995); Hendrickson v. Neiman, 204 Mont. 367, 371, 665 P.2d 219, 222 (1983) (overruled on other grounds). A cause of action in negligence consists of four elements: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. Brown, 272 Mont. at 482, 901 P.2d at 569, see also Cusenbary v. ...

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