South Carolina Supreme Court: business owners are not all-purpose crime-stoppers


Author:  Deborah J. LaFetra

The South Carolina Supreme Court today held that a motel that has not previously experienced violent crime on the premises is not liable to a guest who emerged from his room late at night to confront a stranger who demanded money and, when refused, shot the guest in the leg. 

Motel guest Gerald Bass had argued that the Super 8 motel failed to have security guards or elaborate camera surveillance that could have prevented the shooting.  However, Bass’s own expert testified that the motel provided adequate lighting and locks, and there had been no similar previous incidents of violent crime on the premises.

Employing a balancing test to determine the scope of the motel’s duty in the case, the court held that Bass had provided a “scintilla of evidence” that the shooting was foreseeable, but that the Super 8 already provided all the security measures that were reasonable under the circumstances.  The court adopted PLF's argument, put forth in our amicus curiae brief, that tort law should impose a duty only to take reasonable precautions—not precautions against risks that are so unlikely to occur

that, although perhaps logically foreseeable, are not worth guarding against because doing so would impose too high a social cost:

Petitioner asserts Respondent should have either hired a security guard to patrol the premises or installed a roving camera security system.  In our view, the hiring of security personnel is no small burden.  Considering a business's economic interest, it is difficult to imagine an instance where a business would be required to employ costly security guards in the absence of evidence of prior crimes on the premises.  However, a business, such as this one, in a high crime area without evidence of prior criminal incidents may be required to institute less costly measures to offset an elevated risk of harm, such as installing extra lighting, fences, locks, or security cameras, or simply training existing personnel on best security practices…. Even casting all evidence in a light most favorable to the Petitioner, he failed to provide any evidence that Respondent should have expended more resources to curtail the risk of criminal activity that might have been probable.

Plaintiffs lawyers relentlessly push the limits of business premises liability, because business owners are seen as "deep pockets" — not because they actually caused any harm.  It is gratifying to see the South Carolina Supreme Court recognize that tort law does not transform business owners into insurers of their patrons' safety.  Innkeepers do, of course, have a duty to provide safe accommodations, and the Super 8 Motel did so in this case, by keeping the property well-lit and having proper locks on the doors.

Incidentally, a concurring justice noted that Mr. Bass should bear at least equal responsibility for his own injury, because he would have remained unharmed had he simply stayed in his motel room, rather than going outside to confront the stranger.