A college student was returning from his home in Miami to his school in Orlando. He stopped around midnight at an all-night franchise restaurant off I-95. While in the drive-thru lane, he was accosted by two young men, who tried to rob him, but shot and killed him instead. His vehicle crossed the main thoroughfare and crashed into a hedge across the street.
The plaintiff attorney asked us to research crime statistics in the surrounding neighborhood and to conduct a scene inspection to document the lighting in the area around the restaurant.
I traveled to the location after midnight and discovered that the parking lot was dark enough to train ninjas. The forensic photographer who accompanied me documented the few working lights in the parking lot. There was also a free-standing building next door which housed an abandoned restaurant. An assortment of discarded bottles, condoms, and narcotics paraphernalia littered the parking lot and the curtilage of the abandoned restaurant.
We used property records to determine property ownership and crime grids to establish patterns of violent incidents in the surrounding neighborhoods. This information helped show that the owners of the defendant restaurant were aware of the crime risk and did not take adequate steps to ensure the safety of its customers.
Particularly helpful in establishing the knowledge of the owners was the highly publicized effort by law enforcement task forces to curtail violent gang activity in the area. In fact, we had several clients who had been charged with crimes related to gang activity taking place within a mile of the restaurant.
Articles from the local paper were helpful in establishing general knowledge of violent crime in the area. A violent crimes task force was regularly making news with arrests related to the local gangs. Just a few miles away, a gang member had been shot to death at a local mall on Christmas Eve, with hundreds of shoppers moving around!
The local newspaper provided a detailed list of all the “active” gangs by municipality, which proved to be another useful graphic. With additional research, we located several articles documenting robberies occurring at other stores in the same franchise within 50 miles of the defendant store.
We prepared a spreadsheet for the attorney, outlining all the violent crimes by date, location, and whether or not gang involvement was noted. We submitted a request to the local code enforcement agency, citing violations at the property and plaza. In fact, several lighting violations were discovered and documented for the property, including lights not working and tree branches obscuring working lights.
Result: Poor lighting in the parking lot in the vicinity of the defendant store, a documented history of property and violent crimes in the vicinity, and the failure of the franchise ownership to implement simple safety features and code requirements for their stores successfully established negligence in this case.