Typically when a driver is injured or killed while fleeing or eluding efforts to detain them for criminal wrongdoing, there may not be strong grounds to pursue civil litigation. But as the recent case of Roddey v. Wal-Mart Stores shows, it still may be a possibility worth exploring.
This was a South Carolina Supreme Court case that dealt with the death of a woman in a car accident that reportedly occurred while she and her sister were fleeing from a retail store after an alleged shoplifting excursion.
Decedent was waiting in the vehicle for her sister, who attempted to shoplift several items of clothing from a retail store. However, a customer service manager realized what was happening and alerted another manager, as well as an on-duty security guard, hired by a separate firm.
Decedent’s sister ultimately exited the store without the items, but the security guard still followed her outside. Realizing he was approaching her, she ran to her sister’s car. The security guard then got into his vehicle and blocked decedent’s path. She then turned around and drove quickly out of the parking lot. The security guard followed her in his vehicle.
Decedent then exited onto the highway, with the security guard still behind her. About two miles from the store, decedent crashed, dying at the scene of the accident.
A personal representative for decedent’s estate filed a lawsuit against the store, the security company and the security guard, alleging negligence.
At trial, there was conflicting evidence about the exchange between decedent’s sister and security guard. The sister testified the security guard yelled, “Hey! I need to to talk to you!” before she ran away.
The store manager testified that she had noticed the shoplifting and instructed store greeters to stop and ask for a receipt if suspect exited the store. She notified the security guard of what was happening too. While she did not technically have authority over the security worker, she didn’t intend for him to approach, delay or stop her in the parking lot after she’d exited with no merchandise. The store policy does not allow employees to pursue shoplifters beyond the parking lot. However, the store manager noted she couldn’t radio the security guard to tell him to stop.
Specifically, internal policy prohibits employees form pursuing suspects:
- Beyond 10 feet;
- Who are in a moving vehicle;
- While employee is in a moving vehicle.
The policy specifically states workers should stop pursuit of a shoplifting suspect once they enter a vehicle and let them go because of the increased likelihood that someone could be hurt.
The store manager instructed the security guard to “just get the tag number.” When he informed the manager by radio that he did not get the tag number, and testified she told him he had to “do what you have to do” to get it. He took this to mean he had to get the tag number or else he would be fired for not doing his job. This, he says, was the reason he followed the women out of the parking lot, even though he knew this was technically against store policy.
After all evidence had been heard, the store moved for a directed verdict, arguing:
- There was no evidence it had breached its duty of care;
- The store’s actions were not the proximate cause of decedent’s death;
- Decedent’s own fault in causing her death was more than 50 percent as a matter of law.
Trial court granted this motion. The appeals court affirmed this in a split decision, finding that while the court should not have granted a directed verdict on the basis of insufficient evidence (as justices found the outcome of the car accident was a foreeeable result of the actions), it could have been granted because the jury later determined decedent was more than 50 percent at fault as a matter of law. This was allowed even though the jury’s determination did not consider the role the store may have played (only the security officer, his employer and decedent).
On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial. The court found that in the light most favorable tot he nonmoving party, there was evidence from which a jury could have found the store was negligent and that this negligence proximately caused the fatal injuries to decedent.
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Roddey v. Wal-Mart Stores , March 30, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Lawyer Blog
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