Brawl in the Mall: An Outbreak of Holiday Violence

By Michael GrossmanDecember 29, 2016Reading Time: 7 minutes

I want to look at at an interesting phenomenon that happened on the day after Christmas: On December 26, over a dozen shopping malls suffered large-scale melee brawls on their premises.

Boxing Day Mall Brawls

December 26th is often a crowded day at the mall; shoppers have an extra day off and no specific plans, or want to return gifts that were the wrong size (or just weren't well-received). Bored and keen to blow some Christmas money, people swarm over the stores and food courts like ants.

That many people in one place can produce some social friction, of course, but given their drive to shop or eat or people-watch, most mall-goers tolerate one another and go about their business. That wasn't the case yesterday, though; mayhem erupted in several malls around the country. Here are some examples--keep in mind, these all happened on December 26:

  • Aurora, Colorado - According to investigators, a social media post allegedly promised a fight at the Town Center Mall. People who showed up to witness the scuffle got pulled into it, creating a "flash mob"-style brawl that pulled in over 100 participants. The fight broke out in the food court, even threatening the safety of the off-duty police officers working security at the time. By the time more officers arrived as backup, the fights had spread to the movie theater and a nearby park-and-ride lot.
    Of all the fight's participants, only five juveniles were arrested; no weapons were found by officers. One party was hospitalized due to "significant" injuries sustained in the fight. This instance is particularly troubling as Aurora was also the site of a 2012 mass shooting at a theater showing the Dark Knight Rises. It is a pity to see further violence plague the city.

     

  • Elizabeth, New Jersey - The Mills at Jersey Gardens endured a brawl of its own, including what some patrons reported as gunfire. That report was thankfully false; bystanders mistook the loud sounds of chairs slamming to the floor for the sounds of firearms. Altogether, though, the brawl caused a mass panic of fleeing mall-goers. Two people, ages 8 and 12, were injured during the course of events, though the nature of their injuries was not disclosed.
  • Aurora, Illinois - A series of altercations prompted by a larger-scale fight in the food court caused police to take eight juveniles into custody Monday evening. While they were originally pegged as just "an unruly crowd," officers found that the teens had started the series of scuffles around the mall, which was evacuated for shopper safety and then closed for the day. No serious injuries resulting from the fights were reported.
  • Beachwood, Ohio - A large clash erupted in Beachwood Place Mall on Monday evening. To pacify and clear out the combatants, police from Beachwood and other neighboring districts worked in unison with mall security. They arrested one male juvenile for attempting to assault an officer who was dealing with an unruly patron. Reports of fired shots were once again found to be false by officers, but they made judicious use of pepper spray to disperse the large crowd of violent teens and remove them from the mall. No further injuries or arrests stemming from the brawl were reported. Police suggest that the fight may have been "loosely organized" on social media.
  • Manchester, Connecticut - Buckland Hills Mall endured a large, screaming crowd on Monday. Punches were thrown in several of the shops as several hundred teens brawled in groups around the shopping center. One of the officers who attempted to break up the scrap was allegedly punched in the head, but wasn't significantly hurt by the hit.
  • Fort Worth, Texas - What list of fights would be complete without an entry for Texas? Cowtown's own Hulen Mall had to be put on lockdown by security guards and Fort Worth police. According to the news, at least one hundred combatants were involved in a series of fights all over the mall. Officers responded quickly to reports of gunfire; a spokeswoman for the department explained that the department is prepared to deploy rapidly due to heightened awareness of mass shootings.

    "Anytime we're hearing about a mall shooting and it's the day after Christmas, (where) you have tons of people holiday shopping...we're going to get in there as fast as we can."

    Police broke up the various skirmishes around the mall, then systematically went store to store allowing mall patrons to leave while enforcing the lockdown.

Police are investigating the possibility that many of these fracases were actually coordinated via social media. While in some cases (Aurora, Beachwood) they appear to have confirmation already, it seems a tad suspicious that so many malls would have similar fights break out on the same day. In every instances several school-age juveniles start throwing punches and the fight balloons outward, through food courts and corridors and stores. Why, though?

There doesn't appear to be a unifying factor that could explain this behavior in another way short of pre-planning. They're just kids, and school isn't back in session yet, so they can't be mad about their dwindling days of freedom. They can't, or at least shouldn't, have been drunk, though it's likely a few of them managed to be anyway. Nobody has suggested anything about gangs, and it doesn't seem too likely.

It really feels like bored teens just casually tossed out the idea of a full-on brawl on Facebook to see if they could get any takers. They set up the event, explained the gist of it, and invited their entire Friends list. Then they started crossing off the days until December 26. Attendees would have told their friends in other states who then copied the idea, setting up their own "get-togethers." It takes no significant time to escalate one person's profoundly stupid idea for a "social experiment" to the viral level of a multi-location riot.

I Was Hurt in One of These Fights! What Can I Do About It?

At this point one might expect me to leap forward, cape heroically flapping in the breeze, to proclaim "A personal injury attorney can help you! Let's sue 'em all!" However, I can't really say that given the circumstances.

Aside from whichever teenager threw the injurious punch (who would have virtually no chance of fiscal solvency and would therefore be unlikely be a target for civil litigation), one other party could share some responsibility under certain circumstances to ensure that the mall is safe for the general public. I'm speaking of the owners of the mall.

Did the Mall Fail to Provide Adequate Security

Many people might be inclined to blame the mall, and by extension the property owners, for failing to provide adequate security. At first blush, this might seem to make sense--after all, people got hurt on the premises, and generally the owners of those premises could be held responsible for the injuries. That's one of the broad-stroke bases of premises liability.

When we look more closely, though, we encounter the issue of foreseeability. When applied to premises liability law, foreseeability is the notion that a particular circumstance could have been predicted by the property owner, and suitable precautions or safeguards could have been instituted to prevent it. For instance, a foreseeable issue might be a patron slipping and falling on a spilled drink while walking through the food court. The property owners tend to be aware of such a potential hazard, and a mall manager quickly dispatches custodians and "Wet Floor" signs to the area. The custodians mop up the spill and place the warning sign on the area. Seeing the warning, approaching patrons will exercise caution and tread more carefully, or at least so the theory goes. By rapidly addressing this issue, the mall has exercised its due standard of care to help shoppers avoid injury. It employs custodians and keeps mops and "Wet Floor" signs on-site as a means of solving this foreseeable problem.

To some extent, mall owners expect occasional difficulties with the human element of shopping. They employ security guards to maintain a certain standard of safety on the premises. We've all seen those guards strolling the thoroughfares--eyes darting around, keys jingling, radios squawking. In some of the more posh malls, they might have Segway scooters and wear bike helmets. Regardless, they are there because the mall is prepared for some degree of physical confrontation. Stopping shoplifters and breaking up small altercations between shoppers is well within the capacity of a normal guard staff. It would be asking a great deal of a mall, however, to hire enough staff to stop a hundred rowdy teens who deliberately convened there expressly to get in a fistfight. These malls couldn't have foreseen the need for a Princess Bride-style brute squad.

Now that this has happened, though, there's no telling when it'll stop. If kids are willing to self-immolate or risk amputation from frostbite for the sake of a few moments of Internet notoriety, it's likely that they'll see these brawls as another asinine "challenge" that they must answer. Malls would likely be best served by beefing up security, because if mall-fights are the hottest new trend, impressionable kids will be descending on food courts across the country to get physical. It's in property owners' best interests to head this off at the pass if they can, because while they can argue foreseeability conflicts this time, they may not be afforded the same protection during the next round. Besides, violence could escalate beyond thrown punches; how long until someone gets the genius idea to sneak in a weapon, or decides to try a little selective looting while security is distracted?

What We Can Take Away from This

Some people may object to holding anyone but the brawlers themselves accountable for their actions. I understand where they're coming from, but property owners also have a duty to ensure that when they invite someone on to their property, it's safe for everyone to be there.

Obviously, if a brawl spontaneously breaks out, there is little that an establishment can do except call the police and rush whatever security they have to the scene. At the same time, one of the most overlooked aspects of the law is that when someone enjoys the benefit and use of a place, tool, or technology, they also share the risk when that same thing backfires and injures someone.

It's well-known that malls and retailers use social media in order to generate foot traffic. It's not like these platforms aren't on retailers' radar. It stands to reason then that if they're monitoring these platforms for the potential public relations damage or favor that they can convey, they might also be on the lookout for potential problems that could arise, like brawls, or worse.

It may frustrate some, but this isn't a clear-cut, black and white issue. While in most instances malls aren't liable when mayhem erupts, there are easy to envision, plausible scenarios where malls know or should know of impending violence, but fail to take minimal steps to meet that that threat. When they fail in these basic duties, that's when a mall could be accountable to the injured.