Violence is a fact of life. Sad, but true. We live in a society where crime is rampant. In Florida there is a violent crime committed every 6 minutes. The reasons include a transient population, demographics, and an abundance of target-rich environments.
Our initial instinct is to increase policing and stiffen criminal penalties. But one of the most effective ways we have successfully combatted violent crime in the past 25 years is through civil litigation. By holding businesses accountable for the safety of customers and guests through the civil justice system, wholesale improvements in societal safety have been realized.
Liability for negligent security requires that businesses take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable crime on its property. This has led to a proliferation of security services, programs and equipment available to institutions and individuals. Many security programs are inexpensive. Some are complex and costly but are necessary or the industry standard requires it.
One is example is the hotel key card. Negligent security litigation resulted in the hospitality industry adopting a programmable key card that would change after each checkout. In the days before the cards, a guest could check out of a room and fail to return the key, either intentionally or innocently. They key, often marked with the hotel’s logo and address (“Drop in any mailbox — postage paid”) even identified the room number. Most of the time the business failed to re-key when the guest checked out. Keys often fell into the hands of criminals, who had no difficulty identifying which doors to open. This often resulted in rapes, assaults and robberies.
Likewise the hospitality industry standard today requires that the front desk not announce the guest’s room number upon check-in. Usually the room number is printed on an envelope containing the key card. Before civil cases against hotels, criminals would wander near the desk and hear what room was being assigned to a particular guest. The criminal could then follow the guest and force their way into the room as the guest entered or lie in wait for the guest at a later time. This was particularly dangerous for women traveling alone. The changes in hotel procedures following security litigation has increased the safety of guests.
The presence of security guards and video surveillance at malls, shopping centers, hotels, resorts, amusement parks and virtually any business is an outgrowth of negligent security litigation.
Lighting is a major factor in many nighttime crimes, particularly those where the criminal seeks to avoid detection and requires the element of surprise. Lighting standards have been implemented as a result of instances where criminals took advantage of poor illumination to commit a crime. Standards may be found in county codes as well in industry publications recognized and applicable to most businesses and buildings (E.g., Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) of North America, Lighting Handbook, Reference & Application, 8th Edition. 1993; NFPA 730 Guide for Premises Security).
Miami-Dade County has adopted and codified its provisions for parking lots illumination (Miami-Dade County Code, 8C-3), which requires open parking lots of day care and educational occupancies to maintain a minimum of 1 foot-candle on the parking surface from dusk until dawn, whereas the requirement is only 0.5 foot-candle for factory, industrial and storage occupancies.
Another example involves a late-night security risk: ATMs. There are 425,000 automatic teller machines in use in the United States. They are crime magnets. Their popularity belies their dangers. They offer criminals “one stop shopping” for quick and easy cash in a robbery and they are usually available late into the night.
Most ATM robberies involve a criminal victimizing the ATM user immediately after the user makes a withdrawal. But there are other variations: (1) the offender forces the victim to go to an ATM to withdraw cash; (2) the offender robs the victim of his or her ATM card, forces the victim to reveal the PIN, and then uses the card; (3) the offender robs a victim standing at an ATM of other valuables (wallet, watch, jewelry); (4) the offender follows someone who has just withdrawn cash from an ATM and robs him or her away from the ATM.
Because of the explosion of ATM crimes, Florida implemented rules governing the placement and security of ATMs. Florida Statute 655.962 requires minimum lighting, placement of mirrors and limits on landscaping for each ATM. These regulations are an outgrowth of negligent security cases against banks and financial institutions that have failed to provide reasonable safety for users of ATMs. But even compliance with the statute does not mean the ATM is reasonably safe.
Violent crimes are almost always deterrable. That means if the business in question utilizes reasonable security measures, whether security guards, lighting, video surveillance, perimeter control, natural surveillance or other means, the crime would not occur. Where they fail to do so, and someone is injured or killed from a violent crime, a negligent security case should be strongly evaluated.
Because crime has continued to ravage our community, violent crime has become more foreseeable and even predictable. Civil cases based on negligent security have brought changes to many industries and have reduced crime at businesses that have paid attention to security. The security industry has become much more sophisticated, and through the use of today’s technology, deterrence has become much more affordable. Social change through litigation benefits everyone if it improves safety and saves lives.
John Elliott Leighton, of Leighton Law, P.A., is a board certified personal injury trial lawyer with offices in Miami and Orlando. He is the author of the text “Litigating Premises Security Cases” (West, 2006) and chairs the Inadequate Security Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice.
By John Elliott Leighton
Leighton Law, P.A.
1401 Brickell Ave., Suite 900
Miami, FL 33131