Business Owners who Ejected Patrons into Street Just Before Shootout Avoid Liability

          In Akridge v. Fathom, No. E2014-0071-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 7, 2015), plaintiffs filed a premises liability action after being injured in a shooting that occurred just outside defendants’ business. Defendants operated a music venue/club targeted to at-risk youth including gang members. Plaintiffs attended a public event there on Christmas Eve, and during the event some of the attendees wore gang colors and an altercation broke out inside the building. Defendants’ security personnel stopped the event and made everyone, including plaintiffs, leave the building. Upon exiting, plaintiffs were “caught in the crossfire of a shootout” and were injured.

            Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that they only owned and occupied the building and that the tortious conduct alleged happened outside the building. Thus, defendants argued, they could not be held liable. Plaintiffs responded that defendants had a duty to operate their business in a reasonably safe manner and that such duty had been violated. Because both parties submitted materials outside the pleadings, the motion was converted to one for summary judgment, which the trial court denied. The trial court found that since the shooting occurred just steps outside defendants’ business and since defendants’ employees had made plaintiffs exit the building into this foreseeably dangerous situation, liability could exist. On interlocutory appeal, however, the Court of Appeals overturned this ruling.

            The key issue in this case was whether “defendants owed a duty of care to plaintiffs, who were injured by the criminal acts of third parties that occurred outside the premises occupied by [one defendant] and owned by [two others].” The Court of Appeals recognized that a special relationship giving rise to a “duty to control the conduct of a third party so as to prevent the third party from causing harm” may exist in a factual scenario such as this, where plaintiffs were invitees of defendants who held premises open to the public. Where the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court, however, was regarding whether “such a duty continued once the invitees exited defendants’ business premises.” The Court stated that there was no Tennessee precedent for extending a business owners’ duty of care to its patrons after the patrons left the premises.

            The plaintiffs’ main argument was that defendants’ security employees had forced them out of the building and into the dangerous situation. The Court rejected this argument, however, and found that because defendants had no special relationship with the third-party tortfeasors (the shooters) and because plaintiffs were not on defendants’ property when the injuries occurred, defendants had no duty to protect plaintiffs from harm. “[T]he only duty owed by these Defendants was to protect business patrons from harm, a duty which would exist while the patrons were on the business premises.” The Court of Appeals held that summary judgment should have been granted to defendants on this issue.

            While apparently in line with Tennessee case law, it seems that this holding could lead to rather absurd results. It is true that business owners’ liability arising out of criminal acts of third persons  must be limited in some reasonable way; being a customer at a business does not entitle you to unlimited protection from that business owner. And in most cases, limiting an owner’s liability to incidents that occur on or in the business premises is a reasonable limitation. One can imagine, however, a situation similar to the one in the instant case, where a business owner who has reason to know that a situation is likely to escalate can escape liability simply by forcing people to leave its premises. By ejecting people from its property, a business owner under the Akridge rationale can avoid a premises liability action in almost any altercation-type situation.  

            It would be important to me to understand how much time elapsed from the time the patrons were ejected from the building and the time the later incident occurred.    The opinion states that the second incident occurred "shortly after the patrons exited [sic] the club," but does not give the exact time between the two incidents.