Sued For Not Having Enough Surveillance

By Carlton Purvis, Published Apr 05, 2013, 12:00am EDT

When someone is attacked on private property, how responsible is the venue? In past US cases, decisions have varied. Sometimes the courts find owners responsible for failing to take basic precautions, in others they decided it is not a contributing factor to an attack

One prominent California court case is frequently used as a justification for why more surveillance is critical but the final outcome has never been reported. We investigated, talking to a lawyer involved about what happened when a woman sued a mall and its security company for insufficient surveillance after a violent attack.

Background

A woman was stabbed, and her shoulder dislocated in an attempted kidnapping in a San Diego mall parking deck. She then sued both the mall and its security company for negligence. A nearby surveillance camera captured the attack but the images did not produce any useable evidence. A guard did come up the ramp, as part of his 30 minute rounds, just as the attacker fled. A man was arrested for the crime and identified by multiple eyewitnesses, but was eventually released for lack of evidence [link no longer available].

In court, she argued the attack was foreseeable given recent mall crimes. She also said the mall should have increased security cameras and patrols. The defendants argued there was no way they could have foreseen the violent attack she experienced and that the security in place was sufficient for both the location and the types of crimes happening in the area.

Court Rulings

In 2009, a superior court judge ruled in favor of the defendants, agreeing that an attack was not foreseeable. However, in March 2011, an appeals court ruled the case should be decided by trial. And then the case drops completely out of the headlines.

Here’s what happened since that ruling 

A couple months before the trial the mall settled for an undisclosed sum (a stipulated judgement). The case against the security company was tried in January 2012 and took two to three weeks for a verdict, says the plaintiff’s lawyer, Ben Siminou

Siminou said he thought for sure the security company would be found negligent because when he played the surveillance tape, the jurors were laughing at the terrible quality of the surveillance video. They could not believe such poor video was being used to protect the mall, he said. 

To his surprise, the plaintiff lost in a 10-2 decision. Only two jurors felt the security company was negligent. Siminou later interviewed the jurors and found that most had a hard time believing that more surveillance cameras in the parking lot would have kept the attack from happening, noting the attack happened in a camera's line of sight.

IPVM Analysis

This case is consistent with other US judgments we have seen for not having enough surveillance. The key factor cited is the disbelief that more surveillance would have prevented or stopped the crime.

We cite two related cases in a recent discussion: In a 1997 article, a Canadian attorney writes cautiously about the use dummy cameras, but finds that the potential liability of dummy cameras may not be as high as that of a broken 'call-for-help' button or other technology meant to illicit an immediate response. Indeed, that article is the source of the 'rape under a dummy camera' urban legend.

A 2004 case shows minor liability for a storage facility that had signs indicating surveillance without having any surveillance at all. A customer sued after his storage unit was burglarized and was awarded the difference between renting storage unit with surveillance vs without -- a trivial sum. Similar to the San Diego case above, the court did not find the surveillance to be a major factor noting, "a camera would not have prevented the theft because the theft occurred with signs saying there were cameras."

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