Ga. Court of Appeals Upholds $1.15 Million Personal Injury Verdict Against Convenience Store

In November 2015, two men stopped at an Atlanta gas station and convenience store. One man stepped out to get gas while the other was taking a nap in the front seat of the act. Shortly thereafter, a third man wearing a white hat confronted the man pumping the gas. This led to an exchange of gunfire. One of the bullets hit the second man in the car.

Khalia, Inc. v. Rosebud

The gunshot victim subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the company that owned the convenience store. Evidence presented at trial indicated the store was a “well-known scene of illegal drug transactions” and, notably, at least “two incidents of prior gunplay.” Indeed, there had been another shooting at the same convenience store just three days before the incident that injured the plaintiff.

Despite this, the evidence also showed the defendant’s principal instructed his employees to “never” make “any sort of reports” regarding criminal activity in and around the store. While the store purportedly maintained 14 security cameras inside the store, it only had 2 such cameras outside, and neither were monitored.

The jury ultimately determined that the defendant was 66% at-fault for the plaintiff’s shooting injuries and awarded roughly $1.134 million in damages.

On appeal, the defendant asked the Court of Appeals to throw out the jury’s verdict, arguing there was no evidence it owed any legal duty to the plaintiff as he was “never on [the defendant’s] premises,” and in any event, its negligent security “could not have been the proximate cause of the shooting.” In other words, the man in the white hat’s conduct effectively “broke” any chain of causation between the defendant’s negligence and the plaintiff’s injuries.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the defense’s reasoning and upheld the jury’s verdict. The appeals court explained that “some evidence supported the jury’s determination that [the defendant] violated” the applicable “standard of care.” Basically, the plaintiff was a “licensee,” or a social guest of the property owner, rather than an “invitee,” or someone there to perform a financial transaction. This is a critical distinction, because legally a premises owner has a lesser standard of care with respect to an invitee.

Specifically, the Court of Appeals said, a premises owner is only liable for a “willful and wanton” act or omission that led to the injury of an invitee. Put another way, the defendant had a duty to exercise “ordinary care and diligence” to prevent any injury to the plaintiff, provided the defendant knew or had “reason to know” there was a dangerous condition that created an “unreasonable risk of harm” and the defendant failed to either protect the plaintiff or warn him of the danger.

Here, the jury determined that the defendant failed in its duty to warn the plaintiff and other invitees “of the hazardous conditions on its premises, including frequent criminal activity and gunfire, of which it arguably had knowledge.” The Court of Appeals said such a finding was within the jury’s discretion, and it therefore would not second-guess its verdict.