Indiana Court of Appeals Issues Opinion Further Defining When a Property Owner Owes a Duty to Patrons for Criminal Acts Occurring on its Property

By Sean T. Devenney

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion helping to define when a business owner owes a legal duty to protect patrons from a third-party’s criminal act.  In Hamilton v. Steak ‘n Shake Operations, Inc. 82 N.E.3d 1166 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018), Hamilton was shot by a fellow patron of Steak ‘n Shake.  Hamilton brought suit against Steak ‘n Shake claiming Steak ‘n Shake failed to protect her from the other patron that shot her.  Steak ‘n Shake filed for summary judgment claiming that Steak ‘n Shake did not owe a legal duty to Ms. Hamilton to protect her from the unforeseeable criminal acts of another patron.

The facts of the case are as follows:  Ms. Hamilton was shot at a Steak ‘n Shake while trying to intervene to protect her brother Dustyn from Mr. Jackson.  When Ms. Hamilton slapped Mr. Jackson, Mr. Jackson pulled out a gun and shot her in the face.  Prior to the shooting, the undisputed facts reveal that several Steak ‘n Shake employees were aware of an escalating argument/altercation between Mr. Jackson, Ms. Hamilton and Dustyn.   In particular, the Steak ‘n Shake employees stated that the altercation/argument took place over approximately a 30-minute period prior to the shooting and that they were aware of the escalating nature of the argument. Despite their knowledge of the dispute, only once did a Steak ‘n Shake employee take any action – basically demanding everyone to stop and leave the premises.  Moments after that request, Ms. Hamilton was shot.  Prior to the shooting, no Steak ‘n Shake employee called the police or sought out Steak ‘n Shake security personnel.

The Court decided that Steak ‘n Shake owed a legal duty to protect Ms. Hamilton.  In doing so, it analyzed two companion cases issued by the Indiana Supreme Court in 2016.  In one case, Goodwin v. Yeakle’s Sports Bar & Grill, Inc. 62 N.E.3d 384 (Ind. 2016) the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s decision to grant Yeakle’s Sports Bar & Grill’s (the Bar’s) motion for summary judgment where a patron shot another patron.  In that case, the Bar employees had no knowledge of any dispute between the two patrons at the Bar prior to the shooting.  The Court found that it was not a foreseeable risk that the bar was legally responsible for protecting against because there was no indication to anyone that one patron would suddenly shoot another patron.  To hold otherwise, the Court stated, would be to require the Bar to become an “insurer” of the safety of patrons of the Bar which the Indiana Supreme Court concluded was “contrary to the public policy of this state.”  Id. at 394.

The Court of Appeals then analyzed the Indiana Supreme Court decision in Rogers v. Martin, 63 N.E.3d 316 (Ind. 2016).  In Rogers a homeowner had a party.  During the course of the party, two of the party-goers got in a fight.  After the fight, one of the combatants was seen lying motionless on the floor by the homeowner.  The homeowner did nothing and during the night the combatant on the floor died.  The Indiana Supreme Court in Rogers found that the homeowner did not have a duty to stop/anticipate the fight, but the homeowner did have a duty to seek help for the combatant as he lay unconscious on the floor.

In reviewing the two cases, and applying the facts of the cases to the shooting in Steak ‘n Shake, the Court decided that the fact that the Steak ‘n Shake employees had knowledge of the escalating nature of the argument/disagreement created a “duty” for the Steak ‘n Shake employees to take action to do something to protect Ms. Hamilton.

It is important to note that Steak ‘n Shake is currently appealing the Court of Appeal’s ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court.  As of the time of this blog, the Indiana Supreme Court has not decided whether to accept the case for review.  If the Indiana Supreme Court does accept the case, it will be interesting to see what tweaks or changes it will make to its analysis as articulated in Rogers and Goodwin.