In the criminal court system, we prosecute only those responsible in some capacity for the alleged crime. In the civil justice system, where the goal is not to penalize but rather to restore, we do allow third parties to be held liable for the criminal actions of others when there is evidence those third parties failed in their duty to protect the victim or warn of danger.
Still, our courts can struggle with this concept – when such a duty exists, the extent of it and whether victim was deserving of protection.
The recent Oregon Supreme Court case of Piazza v. Kellim, a Peruvian foreign exchange student living in Portland was brutally gunned down in a 2009 mass shooting at a teen nightclub. She was just 17, and she died from her wounds. The gunman, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, shot several students, killing two, before turning the gun on himself. The representative of one of the exchange student’s estate later sued the now-defunct club and other businesses, as well as the organizer of the student exchange program, were negligent.
Specifically, the nightclub and promoter are accused of failing to take reasonable steps to protect patrons in the high-crime area by forcing them to stand in line outside. It’s also alleged the club did not have enough security to adequately protect customers. Plaintiff also alleges the foreign exchange student program organizer didn’t provide enough training to the program’s host parents.
She had been staying with a family in Washington state. Following a family birthday party that night, the host parents drove decedent and several others to this teen nightclub and dropped them off unchaperoned, arranging to pick them up at 1 a.m. It was while waiting in line outside to get into the club that decedent was shot. Plaintiff would later allege this lack of supervision and failure to adopt reasonable rules and regulations for students fell on the shoulders of the exchange student program organizers.
A claim was initially also filed against the gun shop that sold the 24-year-old gunman a weapon, though that claim was later dismissed, a decision plaintiff has not appealed.
It’s worth noting that this was not the first shooting to have occurred in this area or even at this particular club. Seven years earlier, the club, operating under a different name, was the site of a shooting in which a man fired into a crowd of people, striking three. There was also reportedly an ongoing history of fights and assaults at this location. Before it was a teen club, police had linked it to gang activity and police frequently responded to the site because it was over capacity and served too much alcohol. In 2005, a series of shootings left two dead and four injured. Club owners were aware, even after the site became a teen venue, that the club was in an area frequented by drug dealers and those who often carried weapons. The club did remodel, hired more security, checked for drugs and weapons and installed updated security cameras.
The trial court granted a summary judgment to defense, finding plaintiff had not shown the teen girl’s death was foreseeable. However, the appellate court in a divided opinion reversed. The majority decided the plaintiff had shown that criminal activity was foreseeable in the given circumstance – and she did not have to prove this particular criminal act was foreseeable.
The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed. The court ruled plaintiff had presented enough evidence that would allow a reasonable juror to find decedent’s death was a reasonably foreseeable result of defendant’s conduct.
That does not mean plaintiff’s case is won, but rather that she may proceed with it.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Piazza v. Kellim, July 21, 2016, Oregon Supreme Court
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