Johnson v. American Towers – Cell Companies Not Liable for Third-Party Attack in South Carolina

In general, courts do not hold one person or entity responsible for the negligent or criminal actions of another. iphone1.jpg

But of course, there are always exceptions. In civil cases, sometimes the courts will allow an entity or person who owes a special duty of care to a victim and who failed in that duty, thereby allowing a third party to take advantage, to be held responsible. These cases require very specific criteria to be met. Usually, we see it in premises liability cases where a landlord or nightclub owner or school owed a duty to tenants/patrons/students to protect them and failed to secure adequate security, resulting in third-party violence (rape, assault, etc.).

In the South Carolina case of Johnson v. American Towers, LLC., reviewed recently by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, plaintiff made a novel assertion regarding a third-party attack. Injured plaintiff accused a cell phone company of negligence after a prison inmate, using a contraband cell phone, ordered an attack on victim, a prison guard, at the guard’s home. The guard was shot multiple times at the behest of this prisoner.

Justices with the Fourth Circuit described the legal theory as “novel,” yet “flawed,” despite the “admittedly tragic facts.”

According to court records, plaintiff served as a corrections officer in the capacity of captain at a county correctional facility. He was responsible for seizing cell phones and other items of contraband from inmates.

In the spring of 2010, a gunman entered the guard’s home, shot him six times, in the chest and stomach. His wife was witness to the attack. The guard survived, but suffered extensive injuries that required eight surgeries and many months of rehabilitation.

Federal investigators launched an inquiry, and concluded a group of inmates ordered the attack in retaliation for prior confiscation of certain contraband items. Specifically, one unnamed inmate used a cell phone to coordinate with the shooter, who was paid by the inmate. Shooter was eventually convicted of attempted murder.

Subsequently, the guard and his wife filed a civil personal injury lawsuit. However, they did not sue any of the typical defendants – i.e., the shooter, the inmates or any employee at the prison facility. Instead, they sought to recover damages from several wireless service providers and owners of cell phone towers. Plaintiffs alleged these defendants knew there were cellphones being used illegally by inmates, based on signal data gathered from those phones and to those towers, and that this created an unreasonable risk of harm.

The case was eventually moved to federal court, which granted defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state claim. The court cited three reasons:

  • The claims were barred by express and conflict preemption
  • State law in South Carolina didn’t impose a duty on defendants to prevent prison inmates from illegally using cell phones via their services
  • Plaintiffs’ claims were implausible and didn’t meet pleading standards

An appeal followed.

While the appellate court ruled the case didn’t necessarily need to go to federal court, the questions of law decided therein were answered properly.

The court noted that while the federal Communications Act doesn’t completely make wireless service providers immune from all civil lawsuits under state law, here the claim is implausible and pre-empted by the federal act. Imposing a common-law tort duty on a wireless service provider to actively monitor networks and prevent any calls coming from inside any prison would in turn limit all wireless service in those areas.

Even when prisons have previously attempted to “jam” cell phone signals so that prisoners would not be able to use contraband cell phones, the Federal Communication Commission stepped in to declare signal jamming in the U.S. is illegal, except for use by the federal government. The FCC is considering other means to address this problem, but so far there hasn’t been any widespread policy change.

Plaintiffs argued the wireless service provider isn’t held to this same standard if it’s interfering with its own signals, but the appellate court disagreed.

In the end, the court found, it would be impossible for defendants to both comply with federal regulations on blocking wireless signals and to also block wireless signals to and from certain cell phones from inside a prison.

It’s unfortunate in this case that plaintiffs did not pursue legal action against any of the other potential defendants. Those claims may have had a higher likelihood of success.

Contact our Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Johnson v. American Towers, LLC, March 25, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
Book v. Voma Tire Corp. – Faulty Tire Lawsuit to Proceed, March 26, 2015, South Carolina Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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