Can a property owner be held liable for persons injured due to gang-related activity on or near their premises? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this question. The appeals court was asked to review a $35 million verdict issued against a popular Cobb County theme park after a man was savagely beaten following an incident in the facility’s parking lot.
Six Flags Over Georgia II LP v. Martin
As the Court of Appeals explained in its opinion, the theme park is “located in a well-known, high-crime area, which has been the site of numerous instances of criminal gang activity.” There had also been a number of reported incidents where violence inside the park “spilled over” to outside locations.
On the day in question, several gang members—including at least one park employee—were accosting two families inside the theme park. When the families complained to park security, the gang members threatened to retaliate against them in the parking lot. And in fact, when the families left the park at closing time, they were confronted by “40 to 50 men.” The families managed to escape the premises.
Unfortunately, the gang then turned its anger on an innocent bystander who was waiting for a bus near the theme park entrance. “Without any provocation,” the Court of Appeals noted, the victim “was hit with brass knuckles and knocked to the ground.” Gang members then “repeatedly stomped” on the victim, causing him to sustain “permanent and severe brain damage.”
The victim subsequently sued the owner of the theme park, alleging it failed to “to exercise ordinary care to keep the park premises and approaches safe for him as its invitee.” A jury agreed and awarded the victim $35 million in damages. The theme park was only ordered to pay 92% of this award, however, because the jury allocated 8% of the fault to four of the gang member identified as part of the attack.
The theme park appealed. In a November 20 decision, the Court of Appeals said while there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict, the theme park was nonetheless entitled to a new trial. Judge Stephen Louis A. Dillard, writing for the Court, said the theme park could be held responsible for the assault even though it did not technically happen on park property. As Judge Dillard explained, a premises liability claim may extend to an “approach” to a person’s property. While the facts will differ depending on the case, here there was evidence the park took “affirmative actions…to exert control over the public way between the park and the” bus stop where the victim was attacked. Furthermore, Cobb County police actually requested the park provide security in and around the bus stop. Ultimately, it was for the jury to decide whether this was sufficient evidence to hold the park responsible.
That said, Judge Dillard agreed with the theme park’s argument that the trial judge incorrectly denied its request to include “additional assailants” on the verdict form presented to the jury. As noted above, the jury apportioned 8% of the fault to four individuals. But there were many more people involved in the attack, the park said, and the jury was required to consider the relative fault of all of the the parties involved. Therefore, the Court of Appeals tossed out the $35 million verdict and ordered a new trial.