Client Stories: How Did a Gas Station Robbery Become a Premises Liability Case?

Michael GrossmanJune 25, 2019 5 minutes

While our main priority as a firm is obviously to help our clients hold negligent parties accountable, we also believe it's important to further the public's understanding of how the law works, especially given the amount of misinformation out there. In our experience, the clearest way to convey the complexities of the law in a way that people can understand is with a play by play of a past case.

One case that illustrates how complex the law can be involves a gas station employee who was shot in a robbery, for which both the assailant and the station's owner were ultimately held liable, thanks to the efforts of our determined attorneys.

A Terrible Shooting With Unexpected Legal Consequences

This case began with our client at work, behind the counter at a gas station. Our client started work just a couple of weeks before an armed robber entered the station and shot him in the head. This resulted in a horrific brain injury, which the victim fortunately survived, although his life would never be the same.

Obviously, the suspect in this case was a reprehensible human being, and there's no question that he was directly responsible for the harm suffered by the plaintiff. But the shooter wasn't the only one who faced justice in the case. As it turned out, there was evidence that the owner of the premises also bore some responsibility for the tragic events.

How An Armed Robbery Can Turn Into A Civil Lawsuit

The general public often regards lawyers as people who sue whoever has money and has any kind of connection to someone being harmed, even if it means ignoring the more obvious, but less monied, wrongdoers. To borrow an absurd example from the public imagination, when someone is hit with a brick in the course of a robbery, a hypothetical greedy attorney tries to go after the manufacturer of the brick, not the robber.

While such cases are incredibly rare, no profession is perfect, and there are indeed unscrupulous lawyers out there who behave in exactly that way. It's important, however, to distinguish between scenarios where there are genuinely multiple parties whose carelessness contributed to someone being harmed, and those where an attorney is just trying to deflect the blame to where the deep pockets are.

I bring all this up because, to the untrained eye, the story you're reading about may seem like one where we just went after the defendant who would be able to pay a significant judgment. But there was actually a bit more to the story than that.

First of all, before our client was ever shot by the assailant, the owner of the shopping center was fully aware that the shopping center the gas station was in had become a hive of criminal activity. There had been numerous armed robberies, several sexual assaults, and various other lesser crimes and thefts on the property in the years leading up to our client's injury.

Now, does the property owner cause these crimes? Certainly not. They are the fault of the evil people who commit them. However, the fact remains that the owner of a commercial property has a legal obligation to take at least modest steps to to protect their visitors from this type of dangerous conduct.

Think of it this way: Suppose that I own a for-profit swimming pool, and I know for sure that some malcontent regularly throws hypodermic needles used for who-knows-what into the swimming pool. Obviously, it's not my fault that the needles end up in the pool, since I had nothing to do with them being thrown into it.

At the same time, any reasonable person can see that inviting people to come swim in my pool for money means I have an obligation to remove the hypodermic needles as quickly as possible, and, in the meantime, to either close the pool or warn visitors about the hazard. Naturally, if I put up big signs that warn people "potentially hazardous needles infest my pool," they may choose not to come, and that's a cost that I, as a responsible business owner, will just have to live with.

But what I can't do is lie to the public by omission in order to avoid taking on that cost. I can't just pretend there's no problem with hypodermic needles in my pool and then, when someone's child gets stuck by one, claim I had no idea and deny any responsibility.

In short, as a business owner, if I become aware of a hazard on my property, I have an obligation to either fix the problem or, at a minimum, warn people that one exists, so they can make an informed decision about whether to take the risk.

Bringing this back to the case at hand, if I own a strip mall known for attracting criminal elements, and someone comes up to me asking to rent a space, I have a legal obligation to tell them, "Hey man, this is a pretty high crime area," and ensure that their customers receive similar warnings. Better yet, I could hire sufficient security to actually keep crimes from occurring on the property. What I can't do is simply throw up my hands and say "I'm not the one robbing people. I don't have any obligation to keep people safe."

If I fail to take action to remedy this known problem (known as an abnormally dangerous condition in civil law) and someone is hurt or killed as a result of it, that failure is a separate wrongful act that works in conjunction with the assailant's. It was just such a failure that we encountered as we investigated this gas station shooting.

How Our Firm Held A Careless Business Owner Accountable

Returning to the case at hand: our client was an employee of the gas station, which in turn rented its space from the landlord of a shopping center, and neither the landlord, nor the employer, ever said a word to our client about this being a high crime area. After working a new job for only a couple of weeks (a job he might not even have taken, had he been fully informed about the dangers it entailed) he ended up being shot in the head, suffering a very serious, and very expensive, brain injury.

Because the landlord failed to take any action to mitigate the danger posed to the staff of businesses setting up shop on his property, we could sue both him and the robber for the wrongful acts that led to our client's grievous injuries. Ultimately, we were able to successfully resolve the case, earning our client compensation for his hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, lost earnings, and other costs of this life-changing event.

Now, to be clear, this doesn't mean that any scenario where there's a robbery allows someone harmed to sue the business owner. In order for the owner to be liable, they have to have actual knowledge of a danger and decline to take any reasonable action to protect visitors from it.

If you own an apartment complex, hotel, or restaurant, and dangerous events rarely or never occur, then it wouldn't make sense to hold you responsible in the unlikely event that someone drives a truck into the side of your building or shoots up the place in a rampage. After all, these sorts of freak events could happen to anyone, and there's no reasonable way you could have prevented them.

On the other hand, if dangerous events start happening regularly, it's on you to protect your renters or the public from harm, either by taking steps to fix the problem, or posting large signs letting people know they're taking on a higher-than-normal level of risk by entering your premises.

You can understand why a business owner might not find either of these options appealing: they don't want to pay to fix the problem, and they don't want to drive away potential customers with a prominent warning sign. But trying to bury their head in the sand and go on with business as usual isn't a valid option under the law, and if they try to do so, they're likely to face a lawsuit from a firm like ours.