Premises liability cases involving a property's security often turn on whether the property owner could have reasonably done anything to make the premises safer. In a January 2018 trial over the shooting death of an apartment tenant, Weinberg Wheeler’s Mark Johnson crafted a forceful argument on that issue, helping clear the apartment of 99% of fault in the case. Alexis v. Riverstone Residential SE, 14A52296E5.
Kevin Pierre, 22, who lived with his mother at Bradford Gwinnett Apartments & Townhomes, was killed after a fight began on Beaver Springs Lane, a Norcross, Georgia public road alongside the apartment. Pierre, who had not been involved in the fight, was shot in the back while in a common area of the complex close to where the fight occurred.
Pierre’s parents contended the complex’s owners and managers knew the area had a history of violent crime but did nothing to prevent it. Much of the seven-day trial focused on the role the apartment complex and the surrounding area’s crime played in the shooting.
In his closing for the defense, however, Johnson emphasized the guilty parties were those allegedly involved in the shooting, who were not part of the civil trial, rather than the complex’s ownership and management. Walking jurors through maps of the area, Johnson reminded the jury of evidence that the shots were fired from a public road over which the complex had no jurisdiction.
The area, he acknowledged, was not crime free, and there had been crimes on the property in the past. But Johnson maintained the complex had improved security and that past criminal incidents were unrelated to Pierre’s shooting. “Don’t think I’m trying to say this property didn’t have issues, didn’t have challenges. It did,” Johnson told jurors. “But this picture is different from this war zone idea [plaintiffs] want you to embrace to get you upset.”
And importantly, Johnson argued none of the improvements plaintiffs’ attorneys suggested would have helped save Pierre.
The complex could not have improved lighting on the public street, where may have mattered, while security cameras would not have prevented the gunplay, Johnson contended. “What are security cameras going to do about an incident that happened in a matter of minutes?” Johnson asked.
As for fencing around the complex’s perimeter? “The only fence that would make any difference in this case is a bulletproof fence,” Johnson said, implying how unreasonable that option would be. “If we had placed a bulletproof fence on our lots that we own, up and down the street, maybe, depending on where Mr. Pierre was when he got shot, maybe that makes a difference.”
“But a [regular] fence around this property, what does that have do with anything?”
Johnson’s closing swayed the jury, who awarded $4 million for Pierre’s death but found the apartment complex only 1% responsible.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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