Justices in Indiana debate whether bar should have prevented brawl that left W.Va. Delegate Porterfield blind

CHARLESTON — Indiana’s Supreme Court is weighing whether to take up a lawsuit over a parking lot brawl that left Eric Porterfield blinded years before he became a controversial West Virginia delegate.

The central question is how much responsibility a pub like Cavanaugh’s Sports Bar & Eatery has to its patrons once they leave — and when that responsibility kicks in.

The Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday morning to consider whether to hear a full appeal after two lower levels of the Indiana court system denied summary judgment on behalf of the bar.

Porterfield was severely injured in a 3 a.m. fight in 2006 outside the bar. A friend who accompanied Porterfield made an objectionable comment to a female patron as the crowd was leaving and wound up in a fight with the woman’s boyfriend and others. Porterfield got into the fight and had his eyes gouged, a permanent injury.

Porterfield’s personal injury lawsuit contends the bar failed to take reasonable care for his safety.

Porterfield went on to move to Princeton, West Virginia, opened a religious organization called “Blind Faith Ministries” and, in 2018, ran for the House of Delegates. He came in second in a three-seat race in the General Election and became the second blind person to serve in West Virginia’s Legislature.

Once seated as a delegate, he generated controversy.

During a committee meeting, Porterfield claimed that LGBTQ rights organizations are “the most socialist group in this country.” Porterfield in a subsequent newspaper interview said “LGBTQ is a modern-day version of the Ku Klux Klan.” And then when a television interviewer asked what he would do if he found out his children were gay, Porterfield responded he would “make sure they could swim.”

His distant but life-altering personal history was the subject of discussion by Indiana Supreme Court justices on Tuesday morning.

Over a little less than an hour at a hearing held before an audience of students at Indiana’s Parke Heritage High School, justices asked questions about what responsibility the bar had after its patrons exited to the parking lot outside.

When the brawl happened, Cavanaugh’s Sports Bar & Eatery was closing for the night and employees directed patrons to the exits. Porterfield was among several customers who wound up in the parking lot brawl.

Lawyers for Cavanaugh’s have claimed that the bar had no duty to protect Porterfield because its managers and staff had no way of knowing patrons would behave violently after leaving. According to testimony, the fight was among five similar incidents at the bar.

Many of the questions that justices asked lawyers for Cavanaugh’s and for Porterfield dealt with precedents in similar legal cases.

But the justices also dove into practical matters such as whether security guards should have been alert to trouble outside.

“What about your two security guys?” asked Justice Loretta Rush. “If they saw the fight go on and then Mr. Porterfield got pummeled, would there be some assumption of duty while they were there? I mean, did they have any duty if those security employees of Cavanaugh’s saw this plaintiff get injured?”

Christopher Cody, a lawyer for Cavanaugh’s, responded that there’s no indication the security guards saw the brawl. Moreover, he said, it happened quickly and surprised even the participants.

Justice Steven David asked how much time a bar would need to be considered responsible for a fight involving its patrons outside.

“So is it your position that had this fight gone on for 20 seconds, 30 seconds, at some point in time that it would have been unreasonable had not the bar done something to break that up?”

Cody agreed that factors like the duration and how loud the fight got should be considered in determining the bar’s responsibility.

Justice David followed up by asking whether a different crime would be considered by the same factors: “So the brief duration of a sexual assault in the parking lot — you have the same position, it just kind of depends on how long that sexual assault transpires before the bar has any obligation?”

Porterfield’s lawyer, Leon Sarkisian, said the prior fights at the bar should have given the owners a strong indication that there was an ongoing problem.

“My feeling is and our feeling is that if a parking lot or bar is a site where there can be rowdy behavior, not only do we have a duty to intervene but a duty to prevent, a duty of deterrence, perhaps somebody out in the parking lot,” Sarkisian told justices.

Sarkisian went on to say that is “because of what we’ve said about bars. Bars are locations where fights can happen in parking lots. It’s 3 in the morning. People have been drinking.”

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