Thursday, January 26, 2012

Salon Shooting Raises Interesting Legal Issues Regarding Negligent Security Lawsuits

As you can tell I am slightly obsessed, as of late, with negligent security lawsuits in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  This is due, in part, because I am handling a number of negligent security suits right now.  But I am really interested in them because they raise a number of interesting legal issues.  For instance in my last post "Circumventing the Fair Share Act" I discussed how the unique nature of negligent security cases may create opportunities for plaintiffs to skirt the abolishment of  joint and several liability to help get their fair share.  But the concepts of duty, foreseeability, responsibility to keep abreast of local crime statistics and many other issues can also arise as we see in the case of Carter, et al. vs. Barnes, et al.

Carter was a consolidated action brought by three male plaintiffs against a shopping center owner, property manager and operator of a hair salon where the plaintiffs were shot in a 1993 armed robbery. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants failed to take adequate security measures which would have prevented the likelihood of foreseeable crime at the shopping center. The defendants denied that the crime was foreseeable and maintained that the standard of care does not require enhanced security measures at small shopping centers such as the one in question.

The plaintiffs, all in their 30's, were customers in the defendant hair salon in Penn Hills (outside Pittsburgh) at 7:00 P.M. on a February evening, right around the salon's closing time. As an employee opened the locked door to allow a customer to exit, two assailants pushed their way into the salon. One assailant was carrying a sawed-off shotgun and the other was holding a handgun, according to the testimony offered. The three plaintiffs testified that they tried to escape with two employees through a side door, but the side door was locked with no key available. The plaintiffs alleged that the side door lacked a proper panic lock that would have allowed their escape.

The plaintiffs and the two employees ran to a back closet to hide. However, one of the assailants kicked the door open and demanded money. Either the assailant was given no money or too little money and fired one round from the shotgun into the five people crowed in the storage closet. The assailants were not apprehended.

The plaintiffs' security expert testified that the hair salon was located in a high crime area, placing the defendant's on notice of prior crimes and creating a need for enhanced lighting, patrolling security guards and surveillance cameras.

The first plaintiff, Michael Carter, put his left forearm up to shield himself from the gunshot and suffered severe forearm damage requiring major surgery. He underwent a bone graft from his hip and has been left with permanent scarring and deformity, according to his orthopedic surgeon. Carter was an overseas operator with a telephone company at the time of the shooting and claimed that he is unable to return to that employment.

The other two plaintiffs received minimal injuries. One, Marcel Craig, sustained pellet wounds which resolved. The third plaintiff, James Atkins, backed into a mirror and suffered lacerations to his back which required stitches.

The defendants' security expert testified that the shooting was not foreseeable. This expert opined that although there had been prior crimes in the area, there was not enough evidence of this type of crime to put the defendants on notice regarding the shooting. The defendants' expert also testified that security standards for shopping malls can not be applied to small shopping centers such as the one in question.

The defendant tenant testified that she felt safe in her hair salon and that two of her children worked there. The defense argued that there was no need for security guards and that the lighting was adequate. The defendants claimed that they were not aware of the prior crimes which occurred in the vicinity.

The defense also disputed the extent of Michael Carter's future diminished earning capacity. The defense argued that Carter had other transferable skills, was under no medical restrictions and could earn a salary comparable to his earnings before the shooting.

After a three to four-hour deliberation, the jury found that the defendants were not negligent by a 10-2 vote.

Not surprisingly, this negligent security case carried a significant emotional aspect and involved innocent victims who had endured the horrible nightmare of being trapped in a small closet and then shot at close range.

To hold the defendant landowner responsible for the criminal acts of third parties under the Restatement of Torts, the plaintiffs bore the burden to establish that the common areas of the small shopping center were made an attractive site for robbers and that the crime was foreseeable due to the lack of appropriate security measures. The problem was that the plaintiffs' security expert testified that he could not say for certain that the suggested security measures would have prevented the crime, only that such measures would have made the crime less likely to occur. The defendants maintained that they were not aware that other crimes had occurred in the area. A major trial issue centered on the plaintiffs' argument that a commercial landlord has an independent duty to determine crime statistics for the area where his business is located in order to insure adequate security. The Court allowed evidence of off-property crimes to be admitted, but restricted the type of crime which could be referred to...yet another obstacle plaintiffs must navigate in these peculiar cases.

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