If I’m Attacked in a Parking Lot, Can I Sue the Business Owner?

Despite the best efforts of many, violence is an unfortunate reality. Indeed, every day innocent citizens find themselves on the opposite end of assaults. Even though violence is expected, the results of aggression, both physical and mental, can have a significant impact on those harmed. When we consider who is liable for an attack, our immediate impulse is understandably to place the blame exclusively on the aggressor.

However, the law does, on occasion, provide for recovery from others whose acts helped cause the violence leading to the injury. For instance, in Whitfield v. Tequila Mexican Restaurant, the Georgia Court of Appeals examined whether a restaurant was liable for the stabbing of a patron in the business’ parking lot.

The incident at issue in this suit occurred in September 2010. The plaintiff was having dinner with his girlfriend and her family at a restaurant in Georgia. The group was seated near a man who had consumed several alcoholic beverages. The man began to harass several members of the group, and the group asked to be moved away from the patron. The group was moved, but the man was undeterred and continued his harassment from afar. Eventually, the man was asked to leave by a manager. The man complied with the request but refused to pay his bill. The managers testified that they could recall another instance when they had to ask a drunk, belligerent customer to leave. Before the man was asked to leave, members of the group had gone outside the restaurant to call the police. When the man saw them, he resumed his harassment, which prompted the plaintiff to go outside. The plaintiff and the man started to exchange blows, and the fracas concluded when the plaintiff was stabbed. Following this incident, the plaintiff brought suit against not only the stabber but also the restaurant.

The plaintiff argued that the restaurant was liable under  premises liability and gross negligence theories, based on the fact that the restaurant continued to serve the man alcohol even though he was drunk and belligerent. Alternatively, the plaintiff also argued that the restaurant was negligent in its hiring and supervising of employees and provided inadequate security. The restaurant moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims against it, and the trial court granted the motion. Unsurprisingly, the plaintiff appealed. However, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s reasoning and affirmed the grant of summary judgment.

First, with respect to the plaintiff’s premises liability and negligent security claims, Georgia law requires business owners to exercise reasonable care “in keeping the premises and approaches safe.” O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1. However, when there is “an intervening criminal act by a third party,” the business is “generally insulate[d] . . . from liability unless [the[ criminal act was reasonably foreseeable.” Snellgrove v. Hyatt Corp., 277 Ga.App. 119, 123(3) (2006). Here, the Court of Appeals concluded that the plaintiff didn’t provide sufficient evidence to show that the business should’ve reasonably foreseen the man’s attack. Indeed, the business did not have prior issues with this customer, and there was no evidence that violence was a common occurrence at the restaurant.

In addition, even if the business had superior knowledge about how much alcohol the man had consumed, both the plaintiff and the business had equal knowledge about the man’s inebriation and resulting propensity to engage in violent behavior. See, e.g.,  B-T Two, Inc. v. Bennett, 307 Ga. App. 649, 656(3), (2003) (concluding that victim and business had equivalent knowledge that “when alcohol is served, some people may become intoxicated and . . . when people become intoxicated, some . . . become violent”). Next, with respect to the plaintiff’s negligent hiring and supervision claim, the Court of Appeals concluded that the claim failed because the plaintiff did not show that the particular act of an employee caused his injury or that the employees should’ve reasonably foreseen that the man would stab the plaintiff in the parking lot. To establish liability for negligent hiring or supervision, a plaintiff must show that the employer hired or retained an employee “who is not accustomed to act with due care.” TGM Ashley Lakes, Inc. v. Jennings, 264 Ga. App. 456, 459 (2003) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). For the same reasons the Court of Appeals concluded that the business could not have foreseen the man’s attack, the court found that the employees could not have foreseen the attack. See, e.g., id. at 807 (explaining that establishing causation requires a plaintiff to show that his injuries were a natural and probable consequence of the employee’s deficient propensities).

Finally, gross negligence is defined under Georgia law as “the failure to exercise that degree of care that every man of common sense, however inattentive . . . , exercises under . . . similar circumstances.” Currid v. DeKalb State Court Probation Dept., 274 Ga. App. 704, 707(2) (2005); see O.C.G.A. § 51-1-4. The plaintiff argued that the restaurant was grossly negligent because it continued to serve excessive amounts of alcohol to the man. The Court of Appeals, however, found that this claim failed because the plaintiff did not show there was a material issue of fact as to whether the business failed to exercise even a slight degree of care. The court noted that the business moved the plaintiff and his guests away from the aggressor and ultimately asked the man to leave. Therefore, the court found that the evidence did not establish that the business failed to exercise even slight care.

Although the plaintiff’s claims failed in this case, the decision still indicates that businesses can be liable for certain attacks on business property. As is often the case in law, establishing a viable claim depends heavily on each and every fact. This is especially true in cases involving personal injury and premises liability. Therefore, those with a possible claim should consider finding counsel experienced with uncovering the details and creatively fitting them within the confines of established legal theories. The Atlanta premises liability lawyers at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have represented numerous injured Georgians and are experienced with taking a case from complaint to recovery. If you’ve recently been injured and are curious about your legal option, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.