If you have followed my blog, you know that Virginia is a conservative jurisdiction. Thus, a recent $2.6 million settlement of a wrongful death case arising from of the death of a woman who was abducted by thugs from a mall, forced to drive to a convenience store to buy beer and take money from an ATM, and who later died, is notable.
In this case, a 61-year old woman was visiting a local mall in Fairfax County, Virginia. While walking alone through the parking garage, two teenagers abducted her, using a toy gun they had purchased in the mall. The teens forced the woman back into her car and told her to drive to a local convenience store, where they forced her to buy beer for them and to withdraw money from an ATM. They then returned to the car with the woman, and crashed it, killing the woman and one of the teen robbers.
The woman’s family sued the mall, a security firm hired to provide security at the mall, and the convenience store owner. The family argued that each had a duty to provide security. Generally speaking (especially in Virginia), a business owner does not owe a duty to a customer to protect them from third-party criminal acts. But there are exceptions, including where the business owner has reason to know that criminal activity is likely, or is occurring, and does nothing about it.
In this case, the family was able to show that there had been hundreds of reported crimes at the mall before the incident, and ten robberies in the preceding two years. There was also evidence that the mall’s management ignored reports from its general manager of recurring problems with gang violence. As to the convenience store, the evidence was that a store customer noticed the situation when the woman came in, and told the store manager to call the police. The store manager refused to call police. (The security company was able to get out of the case. In addition, the family’s automobile insurance coverage was triggered given the involvement of the family vehicle).
Although it remains difficult to hold businesses liable for a third-party criminals acts, it is possible when the evidence supports that the business turned a blind eye to a dangerous situation.