by: Mike Lyon
In December of 2014, the Philadelphia Eagles lost a pivotal home game to the hated Dallas Cowboys by a final score of 38-27. That was on the field.
What happened off the field–but in the stadium–that night was perhaps more important for event hosts, social gathering places, and entertainment arenas throughout Pennsylvania. A single altercation among fans that evening has now resulted in a huge victory for the Eagles in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, one that could have long lasting ramifications for property owners and hosts of small and large events.
On the night of the game, Patrick Pearson, a longtime Cowboys fan, was in attendance wearing a vintage Cowboys jersey. He was with a friend during the game, and the two men went to the bathroom at halftime. When they got there, a handful of Eagles fans began taunting Pearson. In response, Pearson told the fans to “get a ring and we’ll talk” (referring to the fact that the Eagles had not yet won a Super Bowl, while his beloved Cowboys had won five). Eventually, a person walked up to Pearson and threw his Cowboys hat into a urinal. Pearson claimed that this sparked a large confrontation in which several individuals began to assault Pearson by holding him down, twisting his leg, and choking him.
When someone then called “security,” the alleged assailants ran off. Security personnel—who were employees of an outside company called “Apex” that had been hired by the Eagles—arrived to find Pearson on his feet and supported by a friend and another individual. Pearson’s ankle was badly injured; his foot was turned at a 90-degree angle. Pearson subsequently underwent two surgeries, had two rods and ten pins inserted into his right leg, and was in a cast for ninety days.
Pearson sued the Eagles and Apex, alleging that they were negligent in their deployment of security at Lincoln Financial Field, which he claimed caused him to suffer injury. The parties tried the case to a Philadelphia jury in May of 2018, which returned a verdict holding the Eagles 50% responsible for Pearson’s injuries, Apex 30% responsible, and Pearson himself 20% responsible. The jury awarded total damages of $700,000—apportioning the percentage responsibility led to a net award to Pearson of $350,000 against the Eagles, and $210,000 against Apex.
The Eagles appealed to the Superior Court, while Pearson and Apex eventually settled their dispute on undisclosed terms. The chief argument the Eagles made on appeal was that the Eagles did not owe a duty to Pearson to protect him against an assault in a Lincoln Financial Field bathroom. Specifically, the Eagles asserted that Pearson’s theory of negligence was that it was unreasonable for the Eagles not to have had a security presence inside the restroom, because the Eagles knew or should have known that violent altercations could have taken place there.
The Superior Court first undertook a comprehensive analysis of the law explaining the duty of social hosts to protect their guests from the acts of a third party. The Court noted the general rule is that a host is not liable “for the criminal conduct of another absent a pre-existing duty,” although there is a well-known exception to that rule when the host “assumes a duty…and so negligently performs that duty that another suffers damage.” See Pearson v. Philadelpia Eagles, LLC, et al., 2019 PA Super 304, ___ A.3d___, at 9 (Pa. 2019) (citing Feld v. Merriam, 485 A.2d 742, 745 (Pa. 1984) (internal citation omitted)). However, the Court also noted that the law does not place a duty on a host to protect against such criminal conduct unless “the [host] has reason to anticipate such conduct.” See Reason v. Kathryn’s Korner Thrift Shop, 169 A.3d 96, 102 (Pa. Super. 2017) (further citation omitted).
Here, the Eagles did not dispute that they undertook a duty to protect their guests from fighting during games, nor did they dispute that they engaged Apex to provide security to accomplish that goal. However, the Eagles emphasized that no evidence was introduced during trial to suggest that the security program in place was inadequate or operated in a negligent manner. In fact, the only argument presented by Pearson was that the Eagles were negligent solely because they failed to have security stationed in their restrooms, and the Eagles argued that there was no evidence that they had any reason to anticipate violent conduct in its restrooms.
The Superior Court agreed with the Eagles. After reviewing the trial transcript, it concluded that the record “in no manner support[ed] the assertion that there was a history of violent assaults that occurred in the restroom. To the contrary, the record shows that incidents of violent assaults or fighting in the restrooms were a rare occurrence.” See Pearson, 2019 PA Super at 18. The court also found that the Eagles’ choice not to place security in the restrooms was justified, as the evidence demonstrated that the Eagles perceived a stronger likelihood of violent encounters in other areas of the stadium and chose to deploy enhanced security in those areas.
Pearson had separately argued that it had taken Apex personnel several minutes to arrive at the bathroom, asserting that this was evidence demonstrating that the Eagles had negligently operated the security program. The court disagreed, holding that the record lacked any evidence that Pearson’s injuries would have been avoided had the security personnel been more prompt. The court also rejected Pearson’s argument that his decision to wear opposing team apparel should have prompted increased security presence. Evidence revealed that the Eagles recognized that potential danger and had programs in place to combat it, including having certain security personnel wear opposing team attire and patrol the stadium in an undercover capacity to identify individuals who posed a threat to opposing team fans.
The Superior Court ultimately concluded that Pearson failed to present any evidence that the Eagles “were on notice that violent assaults regularly took place in the stadium’s restrooms or that [the Eagles] conducted their security program without reasonable care.”
The decision is a monumental win for social hosts and property owners in Pennsylvania. It is not enough, under Pearson, for an injured party to show that security personnel were not deployed in the specific location, or that they were late arriving. Rather, that person must show direct evidence that the host or owner undertook a duty to protect them from such an act, and that the host or owner knew, or had reason to know, that such an act could occur in the specific location of the incident. The decision would appear applicable not only to large scale event hosts such as sports teams, arenas, or concert venues, but also to smaller venues such as bars, restaurants, or cafes. When deciding to deploy a security presence, Pearson instructs that owners and hosts should consider the particular areas of their places of business that are likely to foster criminal or violent conduct and deploy security in those areas. As long as there is a reasonable basis for using security in certain areas and not deploying security in certain other areas, the owner or host is far less likely to face civil liability.