Club Vinyl lawsuit: Can venues be held liable for the actions of their bouncers?

Six years ago, Janny Barizonte, a 24-year-old law student, headed with friends to Club Vinyl looking for fun. What she got instead changed her life, and not for the better: a painful altercation with club security personnel, followed by an arrest, a violent assault by a sheriff's deputy, a criminal trial -- and finally, a costly civil suit that demonstrates how difficult it can be to hold Colorado nightclub operators accountable for the actions of security teams that bill themselves as independent contractors.

Barizonte and a female friend were arrested and charged with assaulting Darryl Honor and Malia Calip, who worked for a security company called LDH Protective Services. Acquitted at trial of all charges, Barizonte eventually persuaded a Denver jury to award more than $60,000 in damages in her favor against Honor and Calip for the injuries she suffered that night.

But that judgment may be uncollectable, her lawyer says, because LDH has no insurance -- and Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled that Vinyl can't be held liable for Honor's and Calip's actions. Rappaport also ordered Barizonte to pay Vinyl's parent company more than $27,000 in attorney fees and costs, after first denying that request.

The trial outcome was recently upheld by a three-judge panel from the Colorado Court of Appeals, which declined to address a central question of Barizonte's appeal -- whether Rappaport erred in ruling that Honor and Calip were independent contractors.

"I was absolutely stunned by the opinion," says Ron Beeks, Barizonte's attorney. "This allows a club to hire bouncers without investigating them -- and not even require them to have insurance. It allows the club to walk away from any assaults they may commit and leaves the plaintiff with a worthless judgment against the bouncers."

The Cuban-born Barizonte was in her first year of law school at the University of Denver when she visited Vinyl on a Halloween weekend in 2007 -- and began her real education in American criminal and tort law. She was accompanied by her boyfriend, an Air Force Academy cadet, and two female friends. She says she was in the club less than half an hour and had consumed only one beer when the trouble began.

Continue for more about the Vinyl lawsuit. Accounts of who instigated what vary widely, but the parties agree that Barizonte and one other woman were dancing on the ledge of a column (see picture) in the crowded club and were asked to step down. Barizonte says she complied, only to be swarmed and attacked without provocation.

"Somebody pulled me and pushed me to the ground and was kicking me," she says. "I couldn't tell who it was. At first I thought it was gang members. It was really random."

At that point, another member of Barizonte's group, law student Dayren Suarez, returned from the rest room, allegedly saw a woman-- later identified as Malia Calip -- attacking Barizonte, and tried to separate them. Soon, other members of the security team had restrained Suarez and Barizonte's boyfriend and were hauling all four of the group outside.

A report on the incident written by Darryl Honor of LDH presents a different version, alleging that Barizonte had struck Calip repeatedly and that her boyfriend "looked as if he had hostile intentions." According to Honor, his crew responded with necessary force to contain the situation and restrain the "intolerably drunk" females. That apparently included Honor sitting on top of a face-down, cuffed Barizonte on the pavement outside, with a knee in her back; even so, he claims, she somehow managed to kick him in the face and chip a tooth.

Barizonte denies assaulting Calip or Honor. "This guy was sitting on me," she says. "I was screaming and crying and cursing. I was saying I didn't do anything and they couldn't treat people like this. They said, 'Shut the F up.'"

The security team turned Suarez and Barizonte over to the Denver police. Barizonte says she was never read her rights and didn't even learn what the charges were until she was released from custody late the next day. At the jail, she continued to loudly proclaim her innocence: "My whole world was crumbling before my eyes. This one deputy got really aggravated with me. I was pleading with her. She grabbed my head and banged it against a plexiglass window."

That event was caught on videotape. The deputy was fired, and Barizonte received an out-of-court settlement from the city for the assault. But that didn't prevent her and Suarez from having to go trial on misdemeanor charges of assault, disturbing the peace and "disorderly intoxication."

At a bench trial, Honor, Calip and another LDH employee testified for the prosecution. Curiously, although Vinyl has numerous cameras in the club, video recordings of the incident were reported as destroyed and never presented as evidence. The police had done virtually no investigation of the complaint on their own, and Calip's and Honor's claims of injuries proved less than persuasive to the presiding judge. Barizonte and Suarez were acquitted on all counts.

Continue for more about the Vinyl lawsuit. By that point, Barizonte had done plenty of research on her accusers. She discovered that Honor had been sued over two other alleged assaults on patrons at nightclubs where he provided security; he was accused of breaking a man's jaw outside the Funky Buddha and inflicting a closed head injury and "multiple contusions and facial lacerations" on a customer at the 2 a.m. after-hours club. (One plaintiff received a cash settlement before trial, the other obtained a judgment against Honor.)

And Honor and Calip had both faced domestic violence complaints in the past -- against each other. A 2001 complaint by Calip seeking a restraining order against Honor claimed that he pushed her, pulled her hair, shoved her, chased her with his car and spat at her; the restraining order was later lifted at Calip's request. In a letter to an Adams County judge, Honor claimed to be the victim of Calip's "uncontrollable fits of rage" and "increased physical aggression."

"She has called me after going out to the club and spoke to me about fights she got into with other girls for little or nothing," Honor added.

Suarez and Barizonte sued Honor, Calip, LDH and Vinyl for assault, false arrest, malicious prosecution and other claims. Suarez, who lives in another state, settled her case before trial. Barizonte declined a $20,000 settlement offer because, she says, her damages -- including medical bills for knee and back injuries and therapy for the psychological trauma of the incident, as well as being forced to leave law school as her grades spiraled downward -- were much greater.

But Judge Rappaport ruled that Barizonte couldn't introduce the domestic violence case or the rest of Honor's criminal record, which includes a 1995 conviction for disturbing the peace, a 1996 deferred judgment in a theft case, and an indecent exposure conviction dating back to 1985. Vinyl's attorneys argued that Honor's other encounters with the legal system were irrelevant and prejudicial, and that the company had no obligation to do a background check on Honor because the city does its own vetting in issuing merchant guard licenses. (In a court document, Honor states that he provided information concerning his criminal history to Vinyl before the club hired his company.)

"I can understand how a jury could be really confused about what happened because they didn't get to hear all the evidence," Barizonte says.

The verdict was a split decision. While Barizonte prevailed on assault and battery claims against Honor and Calip and was awarded more than $60,000 in damages and interest, the jury also found in favor of Calip on a counterclaim that Barizonte had assaulted her, assessing an award of roughly $5,300. And Barizonte, who now teaches high school Spanish, was ordered to pay Vinyl's legal fees.

"I think it's outrageous that they can hide behind this veil of independent contractors and avoid liability, when they don't even require them to have insurance," Barizonte says. "I don't think there was anything I could have done to prevent this from happening. You can go into an establishment and get beat up by people who work there and have no remedy for your damages."

Beeks has petitioned the Court of Appeals to reconsider Barizonte's claims against Club Vinyl. An attorney for club ownership didn't respond to a request to comment on the case or clarify whether LDH continues to provide security services for Vinyl and related operations.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Tyler Gregorak: Case dropped against former CU Buff and Shmuck of the Week."

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