MIDTOWN — Riding the mechanical bull at popular Western-themed bar Johnny Utah’s led to what Leonard Barstein recalled as "probably the worst experience of my life."
The Brooklyn resident, now 31, had already taken a ride on the bull at the popular bar on West 51st Street in February 2014 when he decided to give it another go.
But before Barstein had a chance to grab on, the bull’s operator cranked up the speed and he was “violently thrown off,” claimed a lawsuit he filed against the venue a few months later.
“It was absolutely horrible — I would never get on the bull again,” Barstein told DNAinfo New York, noting he suffered a broken ankle and a torn ligament he said required a series of surgeries and months of “very painful” recovery.
The bar — which boasts the city’s only mechanical bull — opted to settle with Barstein for $81,000 rather than go to trial, his then-attorney Alexander Karasik said.
The bar’s owner, John Sullivan, declined to comment.
Including Barstein’s settlement money, the venue at 25 W. 51st St. has forked over at least $198,500 in settlement money to patrons with claims similar to his, according to the attorneys who represented them.
Between September 2008 and June 2017, at least six Johnny Utah’s patrons filed suit against the bar saying they were injured riding the mechanical bull, records show.
Most recently, a customer sued the bar claiming she suffered “life debilitating” injuries after she was “violently thrown off the bull before having a chance to mount the device," the claim said. The "visibly drunk" patron, in her late 20s, tore her ACL and had to undergo surgery as a result, her lawyer said.
In July 2012, one of the bar’s own employees, Chauncey Crayton, hit the venue with a suit claiming he was tossed from the bull while trying to dismount it two months earlier, records show.
Crayton, who “broke a couple of teeth” during the incident, received a $42,500 settlement for his injuries, said Nicholas Sarta, his attorney at the time.
The person operating the bull that evening turned the machine back on as Crayton dismounted after the initial ride had ended, the attorney noted.
A little over a year before that, in June 2011, a man named Christopher Haynes filed a lawsuit claiming he fractured his left tibial plateau when the bull’s operator tossed him off before he had a chance to sit down on it.
Haynes received between $75,000 and $85,000 from the bar as a settlement, said Neil Fuhrer, his attorney at the time.
“We thought the negligence was that they didn’t give him an opportunity to seat himself properly,” the lawyer said.
Johnny Utah's at 25 W. 51st St. (Credit: DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani)
In 2008, meanwhile, two different patrons — a woman named Rachel Love and a man named Aaron Schnore — filed separate suits against the bar claiming they’d suffered “serious” injuries at the horns of Johnny Utah’s bull, court filings show.
Schnore’s case was ultimately discontinued, and his attorney declined to say whether he and the bar had settled. Love’s attorney also declined to comment on the outcome of her suit, but the lawyer who represented the bar in the suit, Lawrence Buchman, said she and the bar settled for less than $25,000.
Despite the suits and settlements, Johnny Utah’s mechanical bull continues to rear its head. The bar regularly posts photos that tout “no-handed bull rides” and encourages patrons to “#getbucked” on the free-to-ride machine.
Johnny Utah's website notes that would-be riders have to sign a waiver before mounting up.
"Just like any activity, there is assumed risk involved. Our ring is completely lined in padding and offers a safe landing area. However, it is a 'ride at your own risk' attraction," the site reads.
The bar also states that the machine is "designed to be comparative to a real bull ride" and that it is "operated by a trained employee, who will give you a fun and challenging experience!"
On a recent visit, a steady stream of patrons signed waivers at a "Bull Sign Up" station and received marks on their hands before lining up to ride.
A bouncer allowed riders into the ring one at a time, turning away a few patrons who tried to ride without a mark on their hands. Each time, the operator — who was situated on an elevated platform behind the ring — waited for riders to mount before starting the device.
The attorney Buchman noted that while he isn’t in the insurance business, the “high risk” operation of a mechanical bull is likely reflected in the bar’s insurance premiums.
“It becomes a decision for the insurance company. Do they want to pay some settlement number, or do they want to go to trial on the case?” he said.
“Settling is not anything peculiar to the area of personal injury cases,” he added.
Barstein — who dealt with a “very complicated recovery” after his injury and says he still has issues with his ankle — said he could understand why the bar keeps the bull around.
“I feel like they should really get rid of the bull,” he said. “But I guess that’s the whole point of the bar, the main thing — to have that bull there.”