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Print Page After Hours Death Not Alley’s Fault
by Ron Davis

A stabbing death at a Los Angeles shopping center has raised the issue of the duty of a center’s owner and tenants to protect their patrons.

The stabbing occurred at the shopping center during an altercation between two groups of youths. Just prior to the stabbing, both groups had emerged from a bowling-alley tenant of the center after the alley closed one night at 2 a.m. A few minutes after the altercation began, a member of one group plunged a knife into the neck of a member of the other group. Efforts of medical personnel to aid the knifing victim proved futile, and he bled to death.

The parents of the knifing victim sued both the shopping center’s owners and the bowling-alley tenant, accusing them of negligence and premises liability. In that lawsuit, the parents pointed out that “fights” and “brawls” had occurred previously on the center’s property and that those incidents should have served as a warning that violence there is a distinct possibility.

Up to the time of the stabbing, however, there was apparently no indication that violence might erupt. A security guard at the bowling alley and alley employees on duty testified later to a routine evening. All said they had no reason to suspect that hostilities were brewing among their patrons.

So when the alley closed and all the customers left the premises, the alley manager relieved the security guard of his duties. The guard said he then walked through the adjacent parking lot without noticing any disturbance, got into his car, and drove away.

A short time later, however, someone told the bowling-alley manager that the two groups of youths were yelling at each other in the parking lot. The manager then went outside to investigate, then called 911. Within six minutes, law-enforcement officers were on the scene, but were too late to aid the stabbing victim.

In response to the lawsuit of the victim’s parents, the shopping center’s owners and the tenant argued that in the absence of previous violence in the parking lot they were not duty-bound to provide security there at the time of the youth’s death.

A California court ruled in favor of the shopping center’s owners and their tenant, explaining, “If this court were to impose a duty to call 911 exactly when the business is notified of yelling, it would open the floodgates to lawsuits. Yelling is not a crime. Arguing is not a crime.… [The manager] witnessed no brandishing of any weapons that would be a criminal assault and would suggest that imminent harm would take place. Yelling and arguing, even if heated, are not crimes, and such acts are not dangerous conduct that give rise to the duty of the business owner to act by calling 911.” The parents appealed that ruling.

A California appellate court agreed with the lower court, stating, “There was no evidence that any weapons had ever been involved [in earlier disputes at the center], or that anyone had ever been injured in the [center’s] parking lot any time as a result of criminal conduct there. Consequently, there was no duty to hire a security guard to monitor the parking lot after the closing.” (Zelmanski v. Golden Pin, Inc., 2009 WL 1464403 [Cal.App. 2 Dist.])

Decision: May 2009
Published: June 2009

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