All Georgia business owners need to take reasonable steps in keeping their premises safe for customers. The key word here is “reasonable.” The law does not require businesses to guarantee safety against all possible or conceivable threats to a customer’s well-being.
Hill v. MM Gas & Food Mart, Inc.
A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Hill v. MM Gas & Food Mart, Inc., helps to illustrate this principle. This case involves an October 2013 incident at a Macon convenience store owned by the defendant. The plaintiff and a friend entered the store to purchase lottery tickets. While waiting at the counter, the plaintiff “heard gunshots and the sound of breaking glass.” He then “felt a burning sensation on his head” and fell to the floor.
The plaintiff was struck by a bullet. Fortunately, doctors addressed the plaintiff’s head wound and released him without the need for additional treatment.
Meanwhile, Macon police investigated the shooting. Investigators determined the shots were fired from a location across the street from the convenience store. Police records further indicated there were at least “three prior instances involving weapons” at that same convenience store in the weeks prior to the shooting of the plaintiff.
The plaintiff eventually sued the defendant. He alleged the store and its employees were negligent in failing to “undertake any action to protect its customers” from the “foreseeable risk” of a gun-related incident on the property. The defense moved to dismiss, noting it had no control over the area across the street where the shots were actually fired–and in any event, it had no “superior knowledge” of the risk to the plaintiff that night. In response, the plaintiff pointed to the reports of prior “instances of gun violence on the property” and the defendant’s failure to take any measures in response.
Ultimately, both the trial judge and the Court of Appeals sided with the defense and dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The appeals court explained that as a general rule, Georgia law does not hold a premises owner liable for a “random and unforeseeable act that occurred off its property.” That is not to say the owner can never be liable for such acts. Rather, it means there needs to be a “higher degree of foreseeability … than would those cases involving on-premises conduct.”
In this case, a gun was fired from outside the defendant’s premises. And even though there are police reports detailing other gun-related incidents in the store itself, there was no evidence the store owner or the employees on-duty that night were aware of these reports. Given this, the Court of Appeals said the plaintiff could not meet the “higher” standard of foreseeability required to hold the defendants liable.
Furthermore, the Court said the plaintiff failed to show there was any “reasonable measures” the store could have taken to protect customers from this type of shooting. The plaintiff’s lawsuit apparently suggested the store should have bulletproof glass on its windows. But the Court of Appeals said that was not a “reasonable remedy” under the facts presented.