The Missouri Court of Appeals has upheld a jury award of $3.25 million in favor of a woman shot in a parking lot where she worked. The lawsuit was against Owner-Operator Services, Inc., where the victim was working as a truck insurance agent support specialist. One evening, she was shot by her ex-partner in the company’s parking lot.
She filed a lawsuit against the company alleging negligence in failing to protect her. At trial, she introduced evidence that she was having problems with her ex-partner, such as stalking and sexual assault, and the company’s director of human resources knew about it. The victim told the director that the partner was leaving her harassing voicemails and that she felt fearful about him. The lawsuit alleged that although the company had security cameras and police patrols available, it did not take necessary measures to ensure the victim’s protection. After considering the evidence, the jury awarded her $3.25 million in damages.
Under Missouri law, a business owner generally has no duty to protect business invitees from criminal acts of unknown third parties because they are rarely foreseeable. However, there are a few exceptions. The first is when a person, known to be violent, is on the premises. Another exception is when a person is on the premises and “has conducted himself so as to indicate danger and sufficient time exists to prevent the injury.” The next exception states a business owner has a duty to protect invitees from criminal attacks of others under “special circumstances,” which means when it is foreseeable that certain actions or omissions will cause harm or injury to the invitee.
The “special circumstances” exception was at issue in this case. The court stated multiple factors can be taken into account, including looking at prior specific events, the totality of the circumstances in which the incident occurred, and a balancing test in regard to whether the incident was foreseeable.
In appealing the verdict, the business argued its duty to protect the victim does not arise until AFTER the known third party is physically on the premises. The business claimed it had no duty to act until it actually knew the partner was on company premises that day. The court disagreed, noting the “special circumstances” exception is premised on foreseeability. The facts of the incident, including the events leading up to it, are relevant in determining the property owner’s duty to act. The jury can take into account the property owner’s pre-existing knowledge in determining whether sufficient steps should have been taken to prevent a third party criminal attack such as an assault, robbery, shooting, or rape.
This case reinforces the notion that a property owner or operator cannot sit back and do absolutely nothing when it has reason to know that an employee or customer may be susceptible to a criminal attack by a stranger. Shootings and assaults like this occur each day at malls, shopping centers, and apartment complexes each day. If you or a loved one has been attacked by a stranger at an apartment complex or place of business, call the inadequate security lawyers of Nahon, Saharovich & Trotz at 1-800-LAW-4004. Our attorneys can provide a free consultation and analyze the particular facts of your situation.