Federal jury returns verdict against couple who sued Arkansas steakhouse over social distancing dispute

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A jury has ruled against a Black couple who sued a Little Rock steakhouse over an altercation the couple had with white customers who did not wear masks and stood too close during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal jury found Monday that there was no negligence or racial discrimination by Saltgrass Steakhouse. Shayla Hooks and Tyrome Jackson have sued the restaurant over the 2020 brawl, which was captured on cellphone video and shared widely on social media.

The couple's lawsuit said they were sitting in the restaurant's bar when a group of people from a tour bus from Louisiana walked in and asked to sit close to them despite social distancing restrictions. At the time, Arkansas allowed bars and restaurants to open, but with capacity limits and distancing rules.

The lawsuit said restaurant staff failed to intervene when customers harassed the couple and deliberately stood nearby, even though Jackson said he didn't want them sitting nearby because of COVID-19.

After a five-day trial, the jury began deliberating late Friday afternoon and continued Monday before delivering its verdict.

“Plaintiffs and their counsel should be ashamed for even filing this lawsuit,” said Keith Bayko, staff attorney for Landry's Inc., the steakhouse chain's parent company. “We were not willing to pay the plaintiffs and their counsel a cent because this was a ridiculous lawsuit and we knew we had done nothing wrong.”

Mike Laux, an attorney for the couple, did not say whether they planned to appeal. Attorneys for the couple have a motion seeking sanctions against Saltgrass' attorneys, accusing them of “discovery abuse” for failing to provide evidence and information in a timely manner before trial.

Saltgrass moved to dismiss the motion for sanctions.

“While we were stunned by this verdict, given these (discovery) abuses it probably shouldn't be a surprise,” Mike Laux, an attorney for the couple, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We plan to raise this with the court after the trial.”

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