Jennifer Borda says she never saw that first shove coming.
She was ordering drinks for herself and her girlfriend on the patio bar at the Voodoo Lounge in Fort Lauderdale's Himmarshee District. She had barely taken her first sip, Borda says, when she found herself fighting off a plump girl in a too-tight green dress, someone she'd never seen before.
It was about an hour before midnight on March 6, 2004, and Borda had been in the club for less than ten minutes when that stranger started a fight, leaving Borda with a black eye and a knee injury that required surgery. Three years later, Borda is still fighting. Her adversary now isn't the stranger who had been pulling out Borda's hair; it's the Voodoo Lounge.
Borda sued the nightclub in Broward County Circuit Court on January 31, 2005; the club offered to pay her $3,000 to settle, but Borda rejected that and went to trial in September 2005, delving into new legal territory in a case that could someday have repercussions for every Florida nightclub. You've heard of the barkeeper's liability for serving booze to a drunk who ends up causing a fatal car accident? Now consider the bar owner's liability for a parking lot assault.
Borda, loan officer for a local mortgage brokerage and a single mom, had left her waterfront house in Lighthouse Point for a night on the town with a girlfriend. She and Maritza Rivero Puccio had become fast friends after meeting at the beach one day.
Borda, 37, and Puccio, 40, say they settled on the Voodoo because it's classier than other local clubs. Borda had gone there in October 2003 for the first time to celebrate her birthday and enjoyed partying in the VIP area.
Voodoo, a popular dance club with nearly 10,000 square feet of space in which to get down and get drunk, has rooms that are decorated so distinctively that they're more like clubs within a club. For example, the VIP room, called Envy, is done in white. The patio bar, where Borda was attacked, was recently turned into its own attraction: "Rodman's Rehab," which is run in partnership with former basketballer-cum-attention-grabber Dennis Rodman.
But it was still just the patio bar that Saturday night in 2004, and Latin music was playing when the stranger knocked Borda to the ground.
"I didn't see her," Borda testified at trial. "I felt a push. And then I say to her, 'Don't touch me.' And she pushed me again. Then I said to her: 'What is your problem?'"
It's loud inside the Voodoo Lounge. A "state of the art" Theatremax sound system can make it nearly impossible to communicate unless you are a skilled lip reader, and even then, the low lights (Voodoo sells it as "ambient") could be a hindrance. Either way, the chubby woman, whom Borda says was about five-foot-three, either couldn't hear Borda or wasn't interested in answering.
"She was in my face, and she was like cursing at me and moving her arms and stuff," says Borda, who admits she pushed the woman back to defend herself.
The shoving caught the attention of several bouncers, who pulled the women apart. Borda says that she told one of them the woman attacked her and that she had never seen her before. According to Borda, the bouncer told her she could stay and not to worry, because security was kicking the assailant out of the club for the night. So Borda and her friend ordered more drinks. One sip into her Baybreeze, Borda says, she saw a flash of that green dress followed by a fist coming at her face.
Whomp. Borda was bleeding. Both she and the woman were pushing each other, yelling, and pulling hair. A second person was hitting Borda from behind, she says. Soon Borda fell to the ground. Bouncers arrived as two women were beating her on the back.
This time, security carried both women out of the club and put them on the sidewalk. Borda was bleeding. The black mini-skirt and lacy cream-colored top she'd bought to wear out that night were ripped. She says she asked a police officer who was working the door at Voodoo to walk her to her car. But he and another bouncer refused, Borda testified, even though the woman who had just attacked her was only a few feet away. (A Fort Lauderdale Police Department spokeswoman was not able to identify that officer.)
Borda and her pal, Puccio, said they walked to the car, which was parked in a lot that borders Broward Boulevard, but the woman in the green dress (who has never been identified), her girlfriend, and a man were waiting. The two women, Borda testified, pounced on her, and while she was fighting them off, the man kicked her in the left knee repeatedly.
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Jurors heard Borda's story at the trial two years ago. They awarded her $150,000 to compensate her for her medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Two months after the verdict, Broward County Circuit Court Judge Leroy H. Moe knocked that award down to $10,000, saying that Borda's more serious injuries were sustained in the parking lot after club bouncers kicked the two antagonists out of the bar. According to Moe, the Voodoo Lounge was not responsible for what happened to Borda while she was not in the club.
Borda challenged Moe's ruling in the Fourth District Court of Appeal, and on February 28, she learned she'd won. A panel of three judges on the appeals court sent the case back to Moe and ordered him to reinstate the jury's $150,000 award. What happened to Borda that night has also created new case law and narrowly expanded the responsibilities of businesses to protect their customers from "foreseeable" risks, a change that essentially requires a common-sense approach to safety standards.
"The jury reasonably found that the Lounge's actions in placing Borda along with her assailant together outside, and the Lounge's employee's inaction in the face of Borda's request for help were the proximate cause of Borda's injuries," the appellate judges wrote. Borda declined to comment for this article, as did her attorney.
Of course, this case isn't out of the oven yet. Voodoo Lounge owner James Cordaro has already testified that he doesn't believe Borda even got into a fight at his club because nobody saw anything that night. Voodoo Attorney James Facciolo has asked the appeals court to reconsider its ruling. More at 11.