Negligent Security: Does the Theory Apply to the Movie Theater Shooting?
On July 20, 2012, a gunman entered a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire. The shooting spree resulted in twelve fatalities and fifty-eight injuries. Last September, three of those who were injured filed a civil lawsuit against the company that owned the theatre, Cinemark USA.
“Victims of violent crimes often find recourse both through the criminal and the civil justice systems,” explained California personal injury lawyer James Ballidis.
The lawsuit claims that the massacre could have been prevented if the theatre had “readily available security procedures, security equipment and security personnel.” The gunman entered the theatre through a side door and the victims suing believe that an alarm should have been connected to that door. Further, because the movie release was highly anticipated, security should have been available and there was none. Finally, the plaintiffs allege that employees of the movie theatre failed to help moviegoers escape from the theatre.
It is widely established that property owners or operators have an obligation to make sure that their property is safe. Premises liability laws divide visitors into three different categories to determine the level of protection owed to them by property owners, with the highest level of care owed to customers who come to do business (called invitees). The movie theatre patrons were considered “invitees,” and the owners/operators of the movie theatre were thus expected to provide the highest level of care and to inspect the premises, correct dangers and issue warnings about unsafe situations.
However, the liability of property owners is not absolute and they cannot always be expected to protect people from a third party’s wrongful or negligent acts. In fact, some breach of care or of duty on the part of the theatre would have to be the direct or proximate cause of injuries for the theatre to be liable. The plaintiff has the burden of proving this link between the breach and the injury, which is called proving “causation.” When someone else does something wrong—such as a gunman opening fire in the middle of a movie theatre—this can be considered an intervening act that breaks the chain of causation.
To determine whether the theatre was liable, it would need to be determined whether the theatre was negligent in some manner that caused the injury directly. The plaintiffs’ case, thus, rests on the theory of negligent security. They allege that the movie theatre was unreasonably lax or careless in failing to provide proper security. They also allege that it was this improper or insufficient security that was the direct cause of their harm.
Typically, in negligent security cases, a landlord or property owner is found liable for negligent security if a crime occurred that they could have prevented and if the crime was reasonably foreseeable. In other words, if past similar crimes had occurred and the property owner failed to take reasonable steps, such as installing video cameras and locks or hiring guards, the owner would be held responsible. Property owners could also be held liable even without a past history of a similar crime if there was a reason to believe that some type of criminal act was foreseeable and if they failed to take steps to stop the likely act from occurring.
In this case, the liability of the movie theatre must be determined by asking a key question: was it foreseeable that a dangerous person could enter a movie theatre through an unarmed and unsecured exit and present a risk? There is no need to show it was foreseeable that a gunman would enter and shoot, only that it was reasonable to assume some harm could come to movie patrons because of the unsecured doors. Another key question is whether the movie theatre should have perceived a danger due to the high profile, violent movie they were showing and thus should have taken action to prevent that danger.
Since the Colorado massacre was unprecedented and came as a surprise to all, it may be challenging for the patrons to make a case that the movie theatre should have anticipated something like this occurring. However, now that the crime has occurred, movie theatres might be expected to take steps to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring by ensuring that their doors are properly secured.
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