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Tilting the Scales Business Issues with a Legal Slant

Have Gun, Will Travel: Owner’s Liability to Patrons for Violent Acts

Posted in *BTW - Noteworthy, Constitutional Rights & Issues, Criminal Law, Legal Risk Management, Property Issues

Assult RifleAttendees at the midnight showing of the remake of the movie “Paladin – the Gentleman Black Knight” were ambushed at the Orpheum Theater. According to news reports the accused bought a ticket and sat in the audience. He waited until after the movie started and then stepped out where he donned riot gear and re-entered the theater, tossed two gas canisters and began shooting into the crowd.  Subsequent investigation suggested insufficient security for anticipated crowds and a lack of alarm system controls on the emergency exit. Is the business owner liable to its customers who were injured in the shooting?

Owner Liability Issues to Customers

Probably not the customers (employees – a different story – will be addressed next month). While a business owners must take reasonable steps to protect visitors coming onto the property or people coming to do business in their store, for victims successfully to recover compensation they must show that past violent incidents reasonably caused the mass shooting at that particular theatre to be foreseeable. The Orpheum responded to its patrons’ lawsuits seeking a dismissal and argued, “It would be patently unfair, and legally unsound, to impose on the Orpheum… the duty and burden to have foreseen and prevented the criminal equivalent of a meteor falling from the sky.” There was no history of similar events to argue a pattern. There was no communication of a threat. The theater would likely be successful in arguing it could not have reasonably foreseen that a deranged gunman would shoot up the theater because it is no more at risk for a mass shooting than any other venue hosting a large crowd of people. Hiring armed security guards over and above the presence of routine local law enforcement patrols is not an ordinary and customary procedure for suburban movie theaters in relatively low-risk areas.

A pattern of criminal problems, such as repeated robberies at the business or assaults in the parking lot, are generally required for courts to hold businesses liable for a crime on their premises.

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor

Insurance. Up to forty percent of businesses affected by a natural or human-caused disaster never reopen. If this happened at your business, could your business survive? Evaluate your commercial property and business interruption policies as well as reputational and crisis management coverage. For most businesses, the brunt of the insurance response will likely fall under commercial general liability coverage because there is no exclusion for random acts of violence or mass events. You may wish, however, to consider public liability insurance. Because of their high-severity and low-frequency nature, insurance for public liability occurrences is designed to protect from incidents on the premises those public venues and other businesses that frequently bring large crowds – a shooting, a structure collapse, an explosion, a terrorist act. Talk to your insurance agent, and review your existing general liability insurance policies.

Reasonable Precautions. The Department of Homeland Security created a checklist of measures recommended to create a business preparedness program. Generally, those measures are summarized as organize, develop and administer a preparedness program, identify the hazards and assess the risks. Then, implement the plan and address the emergency response, crisis communications, employee assistance and training. Annually test and evaluate the plan using a variety of exercises and scenarios.

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