A recent wrongful death case in Florida raises an issue we see in our practice as well. What happened? A hotel guest was shot and killed in the facility’s parking lot. The shooter was not an employee of the hotel. Here is the issue — When is a business liable for a criminal act by someone else on its property?
By someone else, I mean someone who is not an employee of that business. We are talking an outside person who arrives and commits a crime that causes a personal injury. I’ll talk about employees who commit criminal acts in a later post – Those cases raise other questions about the employer and the actions it took to vet, monitor or supervise its employees. Today, we’ll just talk about a non-employee who shows up, commits a crime and hurts a customer in the process.
I’ll give you a few more details about the Florida case. Several guests provided statements indicating the shooter had been harassing people at the hotel before the shooting. The investigation revealed that the shooter became enraged after arguing with his girlfriend who worked for the hotel. Now that you know a few more facts, it’s clear this was not some random stranger who showed up and hurt someone. Like so many legal issues – The issues are difficult and require skilled legal advice.
While this case happened in Florida, we’ll look at the law here in Alabama. When is an Alabama business liable for a personal injury on its premises caused by a criminal act? Now, I’m not talking situations where a business negligently hurts a visitor or customer. I’m talking about situations where a criminal commits a violent act on the property and hurts a customer in the process.
When Criminals Harm People At Local Businesses!
A customer just finished shopping at a local store. He is walking across the shopping center parking lot to his car. Suddenly, someone appears, hits him and takes his wallet. A customer pulls up to a local gas station. While pumping gas, he is mugged and hurt. We don’t want to think about these events. While most crimes don’t end with a serious injury, occasionally they do.
Over the years, we’ve investigated numerous personal injury cases due to criminal assaults at businesses. Because of Alabama law on this issue, we decline most of these cases. But, we are able to help in some cases. I especially remember one case as a young lawyer where a customer was assaulted by a gang at a shopping mall in Huntsville. At the time of his assault, the mall owners knew a criminal element frequented the place. While that mall had security guards, those guards were not allowed by the company’s policy to take any physical steps to help. We were able to help that customer recover compensation for his injuries.
If you watch or read local news, you’ve seen the headlines. Maybe you avoid the local news to avoid the depressing headlines. I get it. Here are several Huntsville headlines involving violent crimes at area businesses where innocent people were hurt in just the last couple months:
You get the idea. A criminal robs or assaults someone at a local business. What if the event ends with a serious injury or death? If you (or a family member) have been injured in a criminal assault, you may wonder why it’s so difficult to find an attorney who will handle your case. It’s difficult for a couple reasons. First, the criminal likely has nothing to pay for your damages or losses. Second, the business owner is typically not responsible for an unexpected criminal act by another person.
Is The Premises Or Business Owner Liable For Injuries Caused By A Criminal?
Does a business have a duty to keep you safe from criminal third-parties on its premises? I’ll state it another way. Does a business have a duty to keep its premises safe by providing security?
Let’s start with the general rule in Alabama. Then, we’ll discuss the exceptions. With the law, there is always an exception! Generally, a premises owner has no duty to protect visitors from third-party criminal activity.
Now for the exception. Foreseeability! A premises or business owner can have a duty to take actions that minimize the risks where third-party criminal activity is foreseeable. When is criminal activity foreseeable? Criminal activity is foreseeable when the person who possesses the property knew or should have known that there was a serious risk of third-party criminal activity. I’ll give you a couple examples from Alabama cases.
The case of New Addition Club, Inc. v. Vaughn, involved a fight at a nightclub. Immediately after the fight, one of the participants shot and killed another participant. Was the nightclub liable for the wrongful death of its customer? In looking at the issue, the Alabama Supreme Court started with the general rule:
It is the general rule in Alabama that absent special relationships or circumstances, a person has NO duty to protect another from criminal acts of a third person.
What “special circumstances” might make the bar liable for the wrongful death? According to our Supreme Court, special circumstances arise when the premises owner or business “knew or had reason to know of a probability of conduct by [a third person] that would endanger the plaintiff.” The Court then continued by explaining:
Alabama law requires a plaintiff to show three elements to establish a duty that would be the basis for a cause of action such as the one presented in this case … First, the particular criminal conduct must have been foreseeable. Second, the defendant must have possessed ‘specialized knowledge’ of the criminal activity. Third, the criminal conduct must have been a probability.
That’s a pretty tough burden. To hold the business accountable for the criminal act of a third party, you must show the business had special knowledge of a specific probable criminal activity. Think about the hotel parking lot shooting at the beginning of my post. In that case, the hotel might have liability because the visitor had already threatened an employee and harassed several guests.
In addition, a business might undertake actions that make it liable for the criminal acts of outsiders. In our Huntsville shopping mall case, that was one of our arguments – The mall provided security which made people feel safe but then instructed security against helping. As you can see, these cases require a detailed investigation exploring the circumstances that led to the injury.
In the coming weeks, I’ll write about a couple other different assault situations at businesses, including one where an employee committed the criminal act.
From our office in downtown Huntsville, our trial lawyers help families across Alabama following a serious personal injury or wrongful death. If you have questions about a legal issue, let us know. We are happy to discuss your questions and provide answers. Our consultations are always free and confidential.