Client Stories: How A Venue’s Negligence Led To A Graduation Party Tragedy

By Alex BakerOctober 08, 2019Reading Time: 4 minutes

There are few things people think they understand as well as our civil justice system, but they don't necessarily know it as well as they believe they do. This isn't necessarily their fault: there are plenty of media personalities and institutions with a vested interest in ensuring that people have one extreme view or another of how the system works or doesn't.

But that means there's a crying need for someone with actual knowledge to genuinely inform the public without spin or speculation. Our firm's extensive experience puts us in a strong position to accomplish that goal. To this end, we sometimes use this space to talk about some of our past cases, breaking down how abstract legal concepts apply in the real world. In this post, we'll talk about one such case, involving a graduation party that turned fatal, largely due to the negligence of the hosting venue.

A Happy Occasion Becomes A Scene of Violent Tragedy

This case involved a promising young man about to graduate from high school, head off to college, and begin what would most likely have been a long, successful life. He was attending a graduation party thrown by someone unaffiliated with his school at an off-campus venue. This location was in a pretty high-crime area with groups of miscreants who had a history of crashing gatherings to cause trouble. For whatever reason, the management had never taken much action to address the problem.

A group of these gang-bangers crashed the party and began causing a disturbance. Although the owners hired a doorman for the party, he apparently allowed these gentlemen in, and no one in charge made any attempt to throw them out, even after they started going around the room picking fights with people. At some point, the group directed some choice words at our clients' son, he answered in kind, and a member of the gang responded by pulling out a gun and shooting him in the head.

Again, the victim in this case was generally a good kid: bright, studious, and responsible. Before this horrible event, he wasn't the kind of guy who you would ever expect to find himself in a dangerous situation. While, being a teenage boy, he may not have displayed a Zen-like calm when confronted, it's not the kind of situation that should have ended in his death. More importantly, the tragedy was preventable, had those in charge displayed even a modicum of responsibility.

Why This Wasn't Just Another Random Act of Violence

After the parents of the deceased contacted us and we investigated the situation, we decided to file suit against the owners of the venue on two grounds: their failure to provide adequate security to ensure the safety of visitors, and exposing those visitors to a dangerous property condition by failing to correct or warn about it.

Both causes of action (fact patterns that justify a lawsuit) fall under the area of the law known as premises liability, which govern the duties owed to people visiting a residence or business. When someone "invites" people into their space by hosting an event or opening it to the public, they have a duty to take reasonable measures to ensure those visitors aren't unreasonably endangered, whether by an open pit in the floor or an incursion by criminals with a known history of creating disturbances on the property.

Adequate security may seem like the kind of subjective standard that "greedy trial lawyers" love to take advantage of: How is a business owner supposed to know how much security is "adequate"? But there are fairly clear guidelines for determining when a business has failed in this obligation.

For one thing, a plaintiff's injuries need to have been foreseeable due to a history of prior and similar dangers. If some guys graze a shopper with a stray bullet while robbing a store, but it isn't a high-crime area and nothing similar has ever happened before, the owners likely wouldn't be held responsible.

On the other hand, if a business owner knows that these kinds of dangers have occurred in the past, it falls on them to take action to either protect their visitors or adequately warn them about the risk. As a result, if a danger they could have prevented injures or kills someone, they bear some liability for those harms. And, as we've discussed, this was definitely the case with the graduation party shooting.

In our graduation party case, the management of the facility knew the assailant's group regularly came to their location and created disruptions. Despite this, the owners never called the police or hired extra security to confront and remove them. Essentially, they gambled with the well-being of their visitors to avoid spending money on additional employees or involving local police. That's simply not okay.

Allowing an unreasonably dangerous condition, in this case, is closely related to the failure to provide adequate security. This form of negligence usually involves location-specific hazards a business knew about and didn't correct, like a wet floor with no warning sign. But allowing criminals to frequent a property and expose visitors to the risk of injury or death can also create such a condition.

When the owners of a property open it to the public, they're responsible for taking reasonable steps to protect their guests from known, significant hazards. If they fail to do so, and that failure leads to someone's death or injury, our experienced attorneys have both the will and the legal knowledge to hold them accountable.