On a recent Nextdoor community forum, neighbors in Montgomery, Alabama’s Midtown district discussed a car theft incident in the parking lot of a local Walmart Supercenter, raising the question of whether Walmart’s extensive parking lots are adequately secure, and the retailer’s obligation under negligent security laws.

This crime was particularly tragic because it involved not just the loss of a car but of a beloved pet as well. The owner of the stolen vehicle, a nurse who worked at a nearby hospital, stopped at Walmart last month to buy a few items, leaving her dog inside the vehicle. When she came back out, both her car and her dog were gone. Neither has yet been found.
The incident compelled several locals to sound warnings about shopping at that Walmart location at any time of the day, but especially at night. Their complaints echo reports that Walmarts everywhere have become crime magnets.

On the legal side of the issue, the crime in Montgomery raises a number of questions about parking lot security everywhere. Is Walmart doing enough to keep its customers and employees safe? What about other big-box stores and retail properties?

After an extensive investigative report on reportedly rampant crime at Walmart establishments throughout the country, Bloomberg BusinessWeek concluded that “there’s nothing inevitable about the level of crime at Walmart. It’s the direct, if unintended, result of corporate policy.”

Foreseeability is the key issue in cases of alleged negligent security and premises liability in general. A property owner has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect visitors and employees from reasonably foreseeable criminal activity.

Parker Miller, a Principal in Beasley Allen’s Atlanta office, and Donovan Potter, also in the firm’s Atlanta Office, both have extensive experience in this field. “There are exceptions, but many of the crimes that you hear about in the news are absolutely preventable,” Miller said. “All the premises owner needs to do is institute some commonsense measures, such as ensuring the place is well-lit, using an onsite security guard, employee awareness training, and doing some general maintenance.”

In fact, Miller says that with a few adjustments, customer safety can dramatically improve. “Most crimes are a consequence of opportunity and convenience,” he says. “The more convenient you make it for a criminal to gain access, where they can then remain undetected while victimizing a customer and escaping afterward, the more likely you will see criminal victimization occur.”

Unfortunately, where you see rampant crime, premises owners simply do not take these basic measures, says Miller, resulting in a nuisance for other businesses and citizens to deal with. “These basic measures would greatly improve a city’s quality of life, reduce law enforcement costs and risks, and benefit economic development, but for some reason, large premises owners in particular often choose to not take these steps,” he said.

Negligent security laws

Unfortunately, Alabama’s laws protect companies like Walmart more than they do customers that are victimized. On the other hand, Georgia’s laws place commonsense duties on premises owners that make them accountable for shirking their responsibilities, thereby benefiting the public as a whole.

“This duty of care applies to all types of businesses: retailers, apartment complexes, condominiums, hotels, restaurants, bars, malls, and so forth. While crime may occur on or near the vicinity of the premises of these businesses, if preventative security measures are not taken and/or are not adequate, customer and employee safety are of special concern,” Potter, Sr., said.

In parking lots, ample lighting, surveillance cameras, security guards and/or patrols, clear signage, phones, panic buttons, and facility maintenance are all elements that can greatly enhance security. For parking decks, access control systems, such as a security booth, gates, and raising and lowering arms will help manage vehicle and pedestrian access. Of course, any manned and technological security fundamentals must be properly working.

If a crime on the business’s premise develops into a negligent security case, the success of that case will largely pivot on the history of crimes on that property and whether the property owner and, in some cases, the security company reasonably addressed the problem. For instance, how often in the past police have responded to a crime on that property and how distant previous crimes have been will determine the property owner’s degree of foreseeability.

As the largest brick-and-mortar retail company in the world and one of the most profitable operations in the world, Walmart has no excuse to not do everything within its power to ensure its premises are safe.

Negligent security litigation

Negligent security claims may involve shootings, fights, stabbings, or other physical violence (including sexual assault) where severe injury or death occurs due to the establishment owner’s failure to take reasonable safety measures. When this occurs, the establishment owner, as well as those contractors charged with security, may be held responsible for the injuries suffered by individuals or groups of individuals on the premises.

Premises Liability is the responsibility a land or property owner has for accidents, injury or other incidents that occur on his real property. Real property may include buildings, machinery, wells, dams, pools, mines, canals, curbs and roads, among others. A property owner may also be liable for injuries that occur on his property as a result of conditions like snow and ice, wet floors, concealed holes, insufficient lighting, improperly secured mats or other hazards. Premises liability also applies to apartment complexes, sidewalks, road construction areas, elevators, escalators, playgrounds and amusement parks. Premises liability claims generally involve physical injuries resulting from slip and fall, or being struck or crushed.

Parker Miller and Donovan Potter are personal injury lawyers in our Atlanta office who handle premises liability and negligent security claims. They would be happy to talk with you about a potential case or discuss in more detail the legal requirements around these cases.

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