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Summary judgment for Steak ‘n Shake in patron's shooting reversed

March 7, 2018

In a case watched closely by both the plaintiffs and defense bar, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment for Steak ‘n Shake after determining the chain owed a duty to a customer at an Indianapolis restaurant who was shot in the face during an escalating conflict with another patron.

In December 2012, Amber Hamilton and her brother Dustyn were at an Indianapolis Steak ‘n Shake when another group of people, including Ricky Jackson, entered the restaurant. Jackson began harassing the siblings because of Dustyn’s sexual orientation and tried to goad Dustyn into fighting him.

A server and a cook working that evening were aware of ongoing argument, but did not call for help until 30 minutes later when it seemed the argument would turn physical. The cook, who was acting as the manager, asked both groups to leave, but they ignored her and a fight ensued between the feuding men.

Hamilton also joined the fray until Jackson shot her point blank in the face, causing serious injuries. She survived, but filed a negligence suit against Steak ‘n Shake, alleging the restaurant failed “to take affirmative action to control the wrongful act of third parties.”

Steak ‘n Shake filed a motion for summary judgment, which was initially denied, but granted more than a year later on a motion to reconsider.

In an appeal that drew amicus petitions from both the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association and Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in Amber Hamilton v. Steak ‘n Shake Operations Inc., 49A02-1704-CT-776, in light of recent Indiana Supreme Court caselaw.

Specifically, Judge Robert Altice wrote Wednesday that the cases of Goodwin v. Yeakle’s Sports Bar & Grill, Inc., 62 N.E.3d 384 (Ind. 2016) and Rogers v. Martin, 63 N.E.3d 316 (Ind. 2016), establish the analytical framework for deciding the instant case. Those cases evaluated foreseeability as it relates to the duty a landowner owes an invitee in negligence actions and determined that a “foreseeability analysis should focus on the general class of persons of which the plaintiff was a member and whether the harm suffered was of a kind normally to be expected — without addressing the specific facts of the occurrence.”

Applying that framework here, the Court of Appeals defined the “broad type of plaintiff” as a restaurant patron who, like Hamilton, was subject to taunts and threats, while the “broad type of harm” was resulting injuries. Under those definitions, the court found Steak ‘n Shake had a duty to provide for Hamilton’s safety considering the 30-minute conflict that led up to Jackson shooting Hamilton.

“Steak ‘n Shake did not have to know the precise harm that would befall its customer, only that there was some probability or likelihood that one of its patrons could be harmed and that the potential harm was serious enough that a reasonable person would have been induced to take precautions to avoid it,” Altice wrote. “An escalating thirty-minute encounter that included verbal threats and taunts, blocking of the exit, and pounding on windows in an effort to incite a physical altercation, all of which Steak ‘n Shake had knowledge, clearly created some likelihood that one of Steak ‘n Shake’s patrons could be harmed and that the potential harm could be serious.”

Thus, the grant of summary judgment was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings on Hamilton’s negligence allegations.

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