A recent decision by the Oregon Court of Appeals has refined the meaning of foreseeability in the context of negligence claims. In Chapman v. Mayfield, A150341, 2014 WL 2608550 (Or Ct App June 11, 2014), defendant’s bar continued to serve alcoholic beverages to Carroll Mayfield, who was visibly intoxicated. Mayfield later shot the two plaintiffs. The sole issue for the Court was whether Mayfield’s conduct was a foreseeable result of the continued alcohol service he received, despite being visibly intoxicated.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals considered whether the plaintiffs had met the burden of foreseeability. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that defendant “had reason to know that serving Mayfield while he was visibly intoxicated created an unreasonable risk of violence ‘because those who are in the business of serving alcohol know that visibly intoxicated drinkers frequently become violent.’” In response to defendant’s motion for summary the plaintiffs produced two pieces of evidence supporting their “reason to know” theory: (1) a declaration from a doctor that he would testify that intoxicated drinkers frequently become violent, as is well-established in medical, scientific, and lay literature; and (2) the deposition testimony of a bartender from a neighboring bar that violence is linked with alcohol.

The Court held that this evidence was insufficient to avoid summary judgment because the evidence would not permit a rational factfinder to conclude that the defendant should have known that continued alcohol service to Mayfield would have resulted in his violent behavior. In so holding the Court noted that “the line between a reasonable inference that may permissibly be drawn by a jury from basic facts in evidence and an impermissible speculation is not drawn by judicial idiosyncrasies. The line is drawn by the laws of logic.” Thus, the Court explained that “the conclusion that defendant should have known that serving Mayfield while he was visibly intoxicated would lead to the unreasonable risk that Mayfield would act violently is not a rational inference because it does not follow, as a matter of logical probability, from those facts that the summary judgment record establishes.” “To reach that conclusion,” the Court observed, “would require a factfinder to make too many intermediate inferences and assumptions, none of which logically follows from the facts established in the summary judgment record.” To illustrate, the Court noted that “it is not logical to assume that people in the business of selling alcohol know what medical experts on alcohol physiology and effects know about the connection between alcohol and violence” nor was it “logical to assume that the experiences of one bar necessarily generalize to other bars.” As a result, the Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

Link to opinion.