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Wiener's Circle In Legal Hot Water For 'Volatile' Late-Night Vibe

By Mae Rice in Food on May 17, 2016 6:00PM

Open until 4 or 5 a.m. daily, Lincoln Park's Wiener's Circle is known as much for its spunky-bordering-on-rude staff and hordes of drunk late-night customers as it is for its hot dogs. The vibe there can be fun—Alinea sure isn't mocking the length of Donald Trump's... fingers—but recently, it's become a legal liability. A lawsuit arguing that the atmosphere at Wiener's Circle contributed to a woman breaking her wrist and elbow has been allowed to move forward by a state appellate court. (The lawsuit was previously thrown out by a Cook County Circuit Court judge, but that decision has now been overturned.)

The suit dates back to October 2011, when Leah Libolt broke her left wrist and elbow on the premises after an angry patron, who had just been arguing with the staff, stumbled into her and knocked her to the ground. Libolt's injuries required two surgeries, and she sued Wiener's Circle over the incident, alleging the staff created a "volatile atmosphere" by threatening the customer with pepper spray and brandishing a wire grill brush at him. The appellate court opinion, filed on May 11 and posted in full on Eater, also notes that "[a]t one point, the woman behind the counter waved a large spoon at [the man who stumbled into Libolt] in a manner that was 'fairly aggressive' and threatening." According to some testimony, the unidentified man stumbled into Libolt after being "pushed" by another customer. Ultimately, the court suggests that Wiener's Circle could put up clearer signage, or hire a security guard, to better protect newbies to the hot dog stand.

As the opinion puts it:

[W]e think injury is reasonably foreseeable in a restaurant where 75% of patrons are intoxicated during late night hours and where the gimmick that brings these patrons in is the effort made to engage with customers in a banter which, late at night, apparently drifts into insults and vulgarity, and where restaurant employees, potentially as part of the schtick, brandish wire grill brushes at patrons and threaten patrons with pepper spray.

The opinion further argues that though "not all restaurants" have a duty to protect customers from "unknown and unforeseen dangers," this is a special case:

[W]here a business invitor such as Wiener Circle here intentionally creates and knowingly maintains a volatile environment in which the likelihood of injury to its invitees is unreasonably high, it has a duty to protect its invitees or to warn them of the dangers.

The court is not alone in treating Wiener's Circle's atmosphere as special. People who love and hate the hot dog stand at least agree that it's an unusual place.

"I'm sure that, as always, people were screaming," Ira Glass said, trying to recall his first-ever visit to Wiener's Circle on a 1996 episode of This American Life.

In a more polemical piece in the Reader called "Things I Hate: Wiener's Circle," Tal Rosenberg described his first Wiener's Circle visit like this:

I went to Wiener's Circle for the first time over ten years ago, and I remember being terrified. I knew nothing of the service and was scared out of my mind when the woman taking my order told me to suck her dick when I said "Thank You" for taking my order.