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ONCE IN A WHILE business gets a break.
Such was the case when a majority of the usually liberal California Supreme Court recently resisted efforts to expand businesses' premises liability and reversed a controversial appellate court decision.
The justices ruled 4-3 that a restaurant employee's refusal to promptly comply with the demands of an armed robber does not breach a duty to ensure the safety of third parties from foreseeable harm.
As we report in this issue, Kentucky Fried Chicken was sued by Kathy Brown, a customer who had been seized at gunpoint during a robbery of one of its restaurants. The armed robber threatened to shoot her unless a KFC clerk emptied the cash registers. When the KFC clerk falsely said she would have to first get a key in the back of the restaurant, the robber became agitated and threatened to shoot his hostage. Ms. Brown, afraid the employee's actions would get her killed, began screaming at the clerk to open the cash drawer, at which point the clerk complied.
Ms. Brown sued the restaurant chain, alleging that the employee's failure to promptly comply with the robber's demands caused her injury, emotional distress and other damages. She also claimed KFC was liable because it had failed to properly train its employees to respond to crimes to avoid endangering customers, among other things.
We believe the court's majority was correct to overturn the controversial appellate court ruling in Ms. Brown's favor. To require businesses to comply with the unlawful demands of robbers is just setting up those businesses to be ripped off.
We also think it would do little to ensure the safety of customers. Armed robbers are not rational people to begin with. We seriously doubt, therefore, they would suddenly abstain from shooting a hostage or customer simply because stores are opening their cash registers more quickly.
Indeed, legally requiring businesses to surrender to unlawful demands for money or other property to protect third parties could put the public at greater risk. It could even encourage armed robberies to occur when a store or restaurant is crowded with customers.
Businesses' liability for the safety of customers should only extend to those hazards in their control or those they can reasonably expect. Obviously, gross negligence for the safety of third parties is still a cause of action, but KFC showed that it was unaware of any prior armed robberies or other crimes at the restaurant.
Even if the store had been hit by prior crimes, though, there are limits to how much risk management can do to prevent crimes. Not only are criminals unpredictable, but efforts to stop them also can hurt a business. Installing high-profile metal detectors and armed guards in KFC stores, for example, might deter robberies but might also deter most customers.
There are still plenty of measures businesses can take to deter crime and protect customers. We are relieved that the majority of the California Supreme Court ruled against making the surrender of property to armed robbers one of them.