At first blush it seems outrageous: Sue Planned Parenthood after it had been attacked by a gunman in Colorado Springs? If you weren’t following the news last November 27th, Robert Dear, a 57 year old madman, opened fire in the parking lot and then went inside.
Three people were killed and nine were injured over the course of a five-hour standoff before he surrendered.
But can you blame Planned Parenthood, as victims wish to do now in a lawsuit just filed? (Wagner v. Planned Parenthood) Isn’t the gunman the reason those people were killed and injured?
Well, just because the gunman may be responsible doesn’t mean others might not bear some responsibility also.*
And the key principle is this: Property owners owe a duty of reasonable care to those on the premises to keep it safe.
If you owned an apartment building, for example, you would be expected to provide locks. And if the lock is broken, and you dilly-dally a year in fixing it and someone breaks in and rapes/beats/kills a resident? You may be found to have violated that duty of care for not acting reasonably. Locked doors deter and protect.
If the attack happened before you even knew of the broken lock, you would expect a different result. Reasonableness is the touchstone.
If the building were in a high crime neighborhood, a week delay may be unreasonable. In a neighborhood that hasn’t had a break-in since the time of the Great Flood? A week may seem to be perfectly reasonable. It matters what is foreseeable.
So in the case of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, the issues are what kind of threats did it have and what type security did it have? The complaint says many threats but almost no security.
That issue — whether security existed or not and the extent of its existence given threats — will go to the heart and soul of the suit.
The issue that will follow, of course, is causation: What good would the security have done in the face of a crazed gunman. Wouldn’t he get in anyway? One would think that, with locked doors or other means of stalling him, others inside the building may have had a better opportunity to call for the police or to escape.
Negligence and causation are the two fundamental issues of any suit for negligence.
Since I work without any direct knowledge, and just a couple of news articles, I mean only to write broadly. I do so because this is exactly the type of case for which knee-jerk political responses are possible.
But there aren’t really any political components in such a suit. It’s simply a matter of whether reasonable security existed given whatever threats may have been known, and the degree to which reasonable security would have helped.
It would seem to me that, if the clinic did not have, at a minimum, a good locked door and buzzer system, then Planned Parenthood’s insurance company should be getting ready to write checks. Whether more than that is needed, may well be a question for a jury one day.
*(I write generally about principles involved here since I’m not admitted in Colorado.)
While I’m similarly not admitted in Colorado, I’ve handled a number of these type of premises cases in my state (Texas). Our “dangerous condition” inquiry deals with whether the type of criminal activity at issue was reasonably foreseeable, before moving to consideration of breach and causation. It focuses on the number, type, similarity, proximity, frequency, recency, and publicity of prior crimes.
In that respect, I think the political component does matter to a certain degree. The petition seeks to establish alleged notice of criminal activity at this specific location by alleging (1) threats against Planned Parenthood, both nationwide and at that site; and (2) actual crimes against other Planned Parenthood locations. If Colorado’s dangerousness focus deals with prior crimes, there’s issue about whether prior crimes at other Planned Parenthood locations in other states would be sufficient to put this specific clinic on notice that its security was deficient. Similarly, I’d have concern about whether a threat of criminal activity is sufficient to trigger a legal duty in the premises liability context. And this becomes even more prevalent in the context of abortion, which seemingly invites inflammatory rhetoric and threats by some opponents of the practice even though those persons have no intention of ever following through with the threats.
As even the plaintiffs concede, abortion has been a contentious issue at least as long as the practice has been legal. In other words, passionate rhetoric and threats are to be expected by some sharing viewpoint that is opposed to abortion. Moreover, as the plaintiffs document, there have been extensive threats (whether credible or not) against abortion providers, some threats against that location (seemingly not acted upon until Dear), and protests. I have to wonder then, if threats are sufficient to create a duty, whether the presence of threats and protests without corresponding violent actions in relation to this location — given the political nature of the practice being threatened and protested — creates the opposite effect for the plaintiffs; a lesser likelihood that those threats should be taken seriously and should form the basis of a duty to provide security. Stated otherwise, the sheer number of (1) non-credible threats, (2) threats that were not backed by action, and (3) protests that did not escalate into actual violence, would make it less reasonably foreseeable to Planned Parenthood that an incident such as Dear’s would actually occur.
If not, it would seem as though abortion opponents could use the mere act of making threats to drastically increase costs to Planned Parenthood in insurance premiums, security/building safety needs, and rent, simply due to the threat of litigation from any incident that subsequently occurred.
An interesting thought comes to mind: Would that open the people who make such threats to civil action to recover the increased insurance premiums and other costs?
Bring personal bankruptcy down on a few dozen picketers, and the rest of the low-rent flunkies might scurry off. Not only would it make for a much more pleasant working environment, it would also make it easier to spot (and take out) those enemies of civil rights who are sufficiently dedicated to pose an actual threat.
Would that open the people who make such threats to civil action to recover the increased insurance premiums and other costs?
Bring personal bankruptcy down on a few dozen picketers,
You have conflated two different things: Picketers expressing First Amendment rights and people making threats of violence. One is legal, the other not.
Is it possible to sue someone for making threats? Sure. But bankruptcy? You presume such people actually have assets to begin with?
I think that, given the context of an active terrorist insurgency in the country, you can make a good case for Planned Parenthood picketers making threats rather than exercising free speech rights. Certainly, a pro-al Qaeda picketer would be engaging in actionable threats, and the terrorists gunning down Planned Parenthood employees seem to me to be just al Qaeda with a Christian voice-over. They certainly have a comparable body count to their name.
On the bankruptcy, bankruptcy doesn’t require someone to have assets, only for them to have liabilities. The point would be to make their lives unpleasant, not to recover any substantial funds.
I take issue with your terminology: People who shoot up health care centers are typically not “crazed gunmen.” They are normally Christian terrorists, and are typically as sane as any other militant religious extremists.
Understanding that these terrorist attacks originate in the Christian Right is important in stopping them.