It was dusk at the Riverview Winn Dixie when Jane Doe left the store with a bag of groceries.When she got back to her car, a man grabbed her throat. placed a knife to ger ribs abd told her not to move. He forced her into the car, drove her to a cemetery and raped her.
Now Jane has sued Winn Dixie Stores INC. and the company that owns the shopping complex where the attack occurred. She contends the store and it’s landlord should have foreseen the attack last November. The suit was filed in April and asks for unspecified damages.
Similar lawsuits against businesses where attacks occur – whether stores, apartments, hotels, or banks – are becoming more frequent.
Since 1988, when an Eckerd College student won $1 million from Barnett Bank of Pinellas County after he was attacked at an automatic teller machine and lost an eye, more and more businesses have been sued by customers who believe their safety was compromised.
Late last year, a woman sued Helman Riverside Hotel after she was dragged into a room and raped during a 1991 nursing convention. That case is pending.
In April, a man was shot four times at a north Tampa tavern sued the bar owner claiming she knew her bar was located in a dangerous neighborhood yet did not provide adequate security.
In each case the victims of the attacks say the businesses failed to protect them.
The businesses respond that the victims weren’t careful enough, that their negligence contributed to the attacks.
“Premises liability cases have come into vogue,” said Steve Yerrid, the lawyer who won the case against Barnett Bank.
These cases have made businesses aware of their duty to protect their customers, he said.
“The significant thing that occurs is the abandonment of the notion by private businesses that somehow it is the policeman’s job,” he said. “When good sense is equated with dollars, big business takes notice.”
Nonsense, say the lawyers defending the businesses.
“They can’t stop all the crime,” said Thomas Bopp, the lawyer representing Winn Dixie in the rape case. “They can’t foresee what a third party or entity will do.”
Businesses do not have a duty to provide the best security, Bopp said. They are responsible for providing reasonable security to protect their customers, he said.
“The store is not a guarantor of a customer’s safety.” adds Tampa lawyer Dale Gabbard. “As long as they take reasonable steps, that’s all the law requires.”
What’s reasonable becomes a question for a jury to decide.
Juries tend to back businesses, if the businesses have been reasonable in their security measures, Bop said.
For example, Winn Dixie was found blameless for the 1983 firebombing of its Palm River store in which five people died when Billy Ferry tossed gasoline on a cashier and ignited an inferno.
But a lot depends on the makeup of the jury. Business people realize these crimes are taking place in real world environment, Bopp said. Others may be more sympathetic to the victims.
And the type of crime also affects the jurors. A rape is likely to evoke more sympathy than a purse snatching, Bopp said.
Judgments against a business lead to climbing insurance rates. Customers would eventually pay those costs, lawyers say.
Fear of liability also could keep company from moving into low-income, high-crime areas, others say.
But not all agree that would happen here.
“That’s a very far-ended approach,” said Yerrid, who believes a store’s first priority in decision making would be whether stores could be vandalized and who would be their major customers.