Dan Herrin didn’t expect this. He’d come to Music City with his cousin for a night of honky-tonking. As it was, he found himself stepping backward across Fifth Avenue North, along Broadway, away from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and the large, angry bouncer who had chased him from Willie and Waylon’s old haunt.
It began with a closing-time disagreement over a $2 bottle of water, early on a Saturday morning, May 2 of last year. Herrin wanted a cup of tap water but was told he would have to pay for the bottled variety. It was apparently something he said to the bartender that angered bouncer John Martinez, who allegedly chased Herrin toward the bar’s front door before picking him up from behind and shoving him onto the sidewalk.
Herrin and Martinez hurled words at each other while the cousin stood between them, pleading for cooler heads to just “call it a night.” Martinez then allegedly moved toward Herrin, who backed away from the bouncer until he made it across Fifth Avenue.
Moments later, Herrin stood on the corner of Fifth and Broadway — half a block from where he’d just been bounced — thinking he was safe. That’s when, according to a subsequent lawsuit, a second Tootsie’s bouncer whom Herrin had earlier lost in the crowd cold-cocked him with a “final and decisive blow” from the blindside, sending him face first from the sidewalk onto the Broadway pavement.
His suit alleges that while Herrin lay injured with a head wound that would require more than 100 stitches, a torn ear lobe, six broken teeth, and cuts and bruises, his aggressors fled and evaded police. Messages left for Tootsie’s owner Steve Smith went unanswered.
Herrin’s suit is one of at least nine filed in Davidson County Circuit or U.S. District Court since 2008, all alleging that incidents with bar customers, many of them tourists, led to violent reactions from security staff. Most of the suits stem from incidents occurring after last call, with bouncers beating or detaining bar patrons. A few, however, involve arguments between patrons.
If successful, the suits could cost bar owners hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in settlements or damages. Regardless, the suits could damage the reputation of a city relying on tourists more than ever (the funding base for the new convention center, for instance, relies heavily on a presupposition that tourism will increase here).
Now, although a bill that would have allowed permit holders to bring guns into any establishment selling alcohol just last week lost its signature provision in the General Assembly, the question remains: Is there room in Nashville’s nightspots for heightened violence and heat-strapping patrons? Opponents say allowing guns in bars would lead to an explosive situation. Proponents say it’s a matter of rights for the citizens and businesses.
Told of the pending legislation, Herrin said “… it might actually give some of the patrons who are jumped by the bouncers down there literally a fighting chance. … Maybe you might have a chance if you pulled a piece on somebody. I’m halfway being facetious.”
Much of the rough-and-tumble roadhouse action alleged in the lawsuits took place under downtown’s wash of neon, with Lower Broadway and Second Avenue drawing the most flies.
Mark Lampen and Chris Hulsey had been to a skiing-themed costume party on Feb. 8, 2009, before they tried to enter Broadway’s Cadillac Ranch, according to their lawsuit, filed on April 1 of last year. A security guard told Lampen he’d have to leave his skis outside, and after doing so nearby, the two tried again to enter. The guard, identified in the lawsuit as John Wesley Whiteside, told them to “Get the f--- out of here.”
When Hulsey asked why they had to leave, Whiteside allegedly started punching him and threw him into a parked car and a parking meter. Whiteside then punched Lampen in
On Nov. 22, 2008, commercial truck driver Paul Anderson stopped overnight in Nashville as required by his trucking company. While he and a business associate were at Fuel on Second Avenue, an unrelated fight broke out and everyone was told to leave the club.
As he was leaving, Anderson realized he had left some of his belongings inside, and he told staff members, who returned everything but his cell phone. He went to the front door of the club to try to find his phone, but according to a suit filed Nov. 20, 2009, security guards stood at the door with Tasers drawn.
When Anderson explained why he needed to get back into the bar, “The security guards, without provocation by [Anderson],” Tasered him, according to the suit. As Anderson turned to run, he was Tasered again, this time in the back, causing him to fall and injure his knee. Messages left at Fuel seeking comment were not returned.
For Scott Sanders, it was 2 a.m. argument with a bartender that led to his lawsuit, which claims he was assaulted, battered and falsely imprisoned at the Cadillac Ranch on Broadway in January 2008.
“Mr. Sanders went into the Cadillac Ranch, and he was assaulted by three of the members of the security force there for seemingly no reason,” said Radford Dimmick, Sanders’ attorney. “My client said something to the bartender. I think the bartender may have misunderstood it, and then he punched [Sanders].”
According to that suit, the bouncers then grabbed Sanders, took him downstairs and tossed him to the curb before handcuffing him, dragging him back inside and locking him in a room until police arrived. Dimmick said the bouncers beat Sanders repeatedly, to the point where he was unconscious when officers got there and had to be taken to the hospital.
Troy Weaver also claims Cadillac Ranchers roughed him up after he and friends, in town from Walton, Ky., to celebrate his birthday, were told “You need to get the ‘f’ out of here,” according to court filings. Weaver explained he was waiting to pay his tab when another bouncer chimed in with “You guys are ‘f’ gone.”
When Weaver’s designated driver spoke up about the bouncers’ language, they allegedly put Weaver and his friends in chokeholds and dragged them toward the entrance, where Weaver claims he was hit in the back of the head and rendered semiconscious, face down on the sidewalk. The suit claims Weaver was then carried inside to a back room and beaten again before his ambulance ride to Baptist Hospital.
Cadillac Ranch attorney Brad Gilmer, based in Memphis, said it would be inappropriate to comment on pending litigation. Messages left for the owner and general manager went unanswered.
Hermitage resident Andrew Felts claims that in July 2009, a Decades Night Club bouncer choked and beat him before throwing him into the street, breaking his arm along the way. Decades owner Kirk Evans declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit.
And on July Fourth, Donald Nickens and his wife, Treva, were kicked out of Coyote Ugly shortly after she refused to dance on the bar, according to the lawsuit they filed against the club. When Donald Nickens asked why they were being ejected, he alleges a bouncer grabbed him around the throat and dragged him to the back entrance of the club, where he and another bouncer beat him while he was on the floor, handcuffed him, called the cops and had him arrested. The arrest warrant says Nickens bit one of the bouncers during the tussle.
Reached for comment by The City Paper, Nickens said he had no recollection of why the argument started or exactly how it went down. He just went downtown to enjoy the fireworks, he said. Management at Coyote Ugly did not return a voicemail message.
Bouncers aren’t the only ones allegedly beating patrons. Leigh Taylor Richardson of Williamson County went to a crowded show at 12th & Porter around Dec. 12, 2008, the same night Nathan and Leigh Ann Mann set up a camera and tripod to photograph the show. Apparently the Manns didn’t like Richardson’s dancing, or at least how close it came to their equipment.
Richardson and others danced with the band onstage for the final song of the set, and when she returned to the crowd, Richardson claims Leigh Ann Mann lifted her from behind and jammed a knee into her back. Then, as the show lights went off, Nathan Mann allegedly used the tripod to beat Richardson about the face and head.
Attempts to reach the Manns and Richardson’s lawyer, James Weatherly, were unsuccessful.
Richardson isn’t the only bar patron alleging this kind of attack.
William Bolt II, who lived in Davidson County and has since moved to Alabama, celebrated New Year’s Eve 2008 at Second Avenue’s Graham Central Station. Bolt’s lawsuit claims the seven-bar complex didn’t provide enough security when it over-served two men who in turn — “and without provocation,” according to his suit — attacked him with a beer bottle before hitting and kicking him until he was unconscious.
Messages left at Graham Central Station and with Bolt’s attorney, John Lowery, were not returned.
Assaults down despite recent trend
While many of these alleged incidents took place from mid-2008 through 2009, North Precinct Commander Damien Huggins of Metro police said he and his men have taken steps to address bar and nightclub security issues they’ve identified. He said serious assaults are down 20.1 percent from 2008 to 2009, and down 2 percent for the first three months of 2010, compared with the same period in 2009.
Huggins said he and his team “started looking at how we could address the situations and do something to be proactive with the police department in working with our clubs and their security forces.” That meant educating bar owners, communicating with them and working with them to make sure club security personnel responsibly addressed crowds and regulated safety.
Metro police have adopted some best-practices guidelines from the New York City Police Department. Huggins and company ensure that security guards are licensed, check a club’s maximum capacity and make sure the club is staffed appropriately.
“On best practices, we give suggestions on how to manage security at clubs — we don’t give actual instruction,” Huggins said. “If we’ve ever seen incidents where we felt like security [personnel] at a club needed to pay attention to how their security was handling things, we’ve met with the managements and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’
“We’ve had some real proactive efforts,” Huggins continued. “We’re getting to these places because we have good relationships with our businesses, our residents and the community groups.”
Would guns in bars increase violence?
Last year’s version of the bill allowed customers to carry guns into a restaurant or bar as long as food was its main source of income, not alcohol. But in November, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman deemed the law unconstitutionally vague because customers wouldn’t be able to determine whether they were violating the law.
This year’s version, sponsored in the state House by Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, would have removed any vagueness by allowing permit holders to carry guns anywhere
alcohol is served. It would’ve still been illegal for customers carrying guns to drink alcohol, and bars would’ve been allowed to post signs prohibiting guns to be carried inside.
But last week, a House committee backed off the full guns-in-bars bill, amending the legislation to include only food-service establishments. The bill puts the onus on bars
and nightclubs, requiring them to post signs disallowing guns.
“I thought it was a disaster waiting to happen,” said Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, who sponsored the amended version. “It offended the general public on average and it violates the promises we made last year.”
As of the deadline for this story, the bill still had to pass a vote in the Senate and another of the full House.
Regardless, if history informs, then the General Assembly won’t totally back off allowing permitted handgun owners to pack heat in bars. But would that bring greater risk to officers and citizens? Or, with the knowledge that someone in the bar might legally be carrying a gun, would people be deterred from violence?
Huggins said cops on the street don’t allow themselves the luxury of an opinion on the matter.
“We’ll deal with those situations as they come up,” Huggins said. “Just like any law, once the legislative body of the state of Tennessee decides that this is the law … we adapt to it, and we enforce those laws. We try to make sure we do it in a reasonable and professional manner.”
His boss has made clear his disapproval of the proposed guns-in-bars law.
Police spokesman Don Aaron recently reiterated Chief Ronal Serpas’ sentiments to The City Paper following debate in the state House Finance, Ways and Means Committee two weeks ago.
“Chief Serpas’ position on guns in bars has not changed,” Aaron said. “He continues to believe the concept is not conducive to public safety and is not good public policy. … [He] has not changed his posture since this type of legislation was first introduced a year ago.”
Will Hawkins, the attorney representing Dan Herrin, said the answer is clear.
“No one — handgun carry permit holder or not — needs to go carry a gun into a bar where alcohol is served,” he said.
Hawkins, who represents downtown bar owners in different types of cases, said, “I think the consensus is that it is not a good idea, but I can’t say that all of the bar owners disfavor allowing guns in bars.”
But attorney Radford Dimmick said a new guns-in-bars law might not turn up the heat in late-night bar fights.
“It depends on who has the weapon, whether or not they’re drunk,” he said. “Would it cause aggression? It depends on the person.”
On April 13 in the House Finance Committee, Republican Caucus Chairman Rep. Glen Casada of Williamson County opposed Rep. Gary Odom’s amendment that would increase the penalty for gun-carry permit holders who are caught drinking while packing. Casada argued for letting permitted gun-carriers sort out bar violence themselves.
“So let’s let the good guys, those that go through the permitting process and are citizens who obey the law, let’s let them see if we can’t stop some of this violence that’s going
on in our bars and in our restaurants,” he said during the committee hearing.
Casada doesn’t think a guns-in-bars law would make things worse in the heart of Nashville’s tourist district.
“We know already there are guns in bars,” he said. “It’s just that the bad guys bring them, and they shoot the patrons and they shoot the bouncers.”
Todd said regardless of suits filed alleging bar violence, allowing guns to be carried in establishments serving alcohol would have no effect whatsoever, and it all boils down to Second Amendment rights of business owners and individuals to carry guns.
“I don’t think the bill will affect it at all,” he said. “The key to it is that owners have the right to post — if they post, then you can’t carry in there, anyway.”
If owners don’t post restrictions, then they feel comfortable letting patrons carry inside their bars. As for those who aren’t permit holders, he added, “Guess what: They’re going to carry anyway. They’re carrying now, probably, in [bars].”
Todd pointed to the four-month period last year when guns were allowed in alcohol-serving establishments, as long as food was their main revenue source.
“You didn’t have any problems last year when we passed that statute, before the judge ruled on the constitutionality of it. Everybody in the media said, ‘Oh, we’re going to have all of these problems.’ There wasn’t one problem.”
Reminded of numerous incidents of violence in bars over that time period, some of which have been laid out in this story, Todd said, “How do you know it was by a carry
permit holder? Was it a carry permit holder that beat the guy up?”
Casada told The City Paper that Tennessee is currently one of the most violent states, and what’s being done to protect citizens isn’t working.
Brian Malte, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, agreed, but sees the solution in tightening, not loosening, gun laws. Last year, the Brady Campaign ranked Tennessee near the bottom in terms of strength of gun laws, giving it eight out of 100 points.
“Tennessee virtually has no state gun laws that keep guns away from dangerous people or stop the illegal trafficking of guns,” he said. “Little to no laws at all.”
Malte said there’s a myth that permit holders are automatically law-abiding citizens. He pointed to a study published by the Violence Policy Center that conludes, “permit holders actually are the ones injuring other people or killing other people.”
Malte said guns-in-bars bills are part of a bigger push to allow guns anywhere, anytime, anyplace. The National Rifle Association is a driving force of such legislation. A representative of the NRA did not return a phone message.
Some named in suits had carry permits
On March 21, 2008, Scott and Sarah Kerr of Dallas and another couple visited Nashville looking for what many tourists come to Music City for — a spot to eat, drink and enjoy live music.
The two couples spent three hours at The Tin Roof on Demonbreun before last call arrived early the next morning. That’s when Scott Kerr’s pending lawsuit claims Wesley Stephens and other employees began pushing patrons, including his wife, out of the joint.
“You’re not going to let somebody like that do that to your wife or your girlfriend, so he goes up to take a picture of him” to show management later, said C.J. Gideon, Kerr’s lawyer.
Outside the bar, Kerr’s wife wanted to complain to management and asked for Stephens’ name; he told her. When Kerr — a third-year law student at Tulane University at the time — turned and took a few photos, the 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound ex-Arena Football League player Stephens allegedly snapped. Kerr’s suit claims Stephens attacked him from behind, ripped the camera out of his hands, tackled him, pinned him, and began choking him while bouncing his head off the pavement.
“Stephens spins him around, kicks his legs out from underneath him, literally takes him down to the brick pavers in front of The Tin Roof and slams his face into the pavers repeatedly after pulling his arms back so there’s no way he can protect his face,” Gideon said.
Ignoring Sarah Kerr’s pleas to stop, Stephens kept punching and slamming Scott Kerr’s head into the pavement before taking the camera and going back inside, the suit claims.
Following the alleged attack, Kerr “looked like someone who had gone 17 rounds with George Foreman and lost every single one of the rounds,” Gideon said.
Gideon said Kerr suffered physical disfigurement and brain damage that night, and he now has trouble with memory recall. He said a neurophysiologist likened it to having “a very small bookshelf, and you can’t get the books off of the shelf.”
Tin Roof owner Jason Sheer refused to comment on advice from counsel. Stephens deferred to attorney Ronald L. Grimm, who didn’t immediately respond to a message left at his office.
Stephens did confirm, however, that he has a Tennessee gun-carry permit, which according to a database of carry permits provided online by The Commercial Appeal was issued June 19, 2008, three months after he allegedly beat Kerr.
The City Paper found two names that appeared to match defendants in the above lawsuits but could not independently confirm those matches.
As for Herrin’s Music City experience, he told The City Paper there’s an “element of thuggery” in Nashville bars that gives him pause to go back — “too many bad memories.”
“I think in New Orleans you have to fear the criminals in the French Quarter; apparently, in Nashville you have to fear the security staff,” Herrin said. “What’s it going to take, somebody being killed?”