To what extent are businesses responsible for protecting visitors from criminal acts? In Desir v. Mallett, 2015-Ohio-2124, the 10th District Ohio Court of Appeals addressed that issue in the most violent of contexts: a school stabbing.
On March 14, 2012, John Mallett – a Columbus, Ohio resident – went on a vicious stabbing spree. While carrying three knives concealed in a plastic bag, Mr. Mallett entered Continental Centre, a 25-story building located in downtown Columbus. Miami-Jacobs, a for-profit trade school, was located on the first floor.
After walking in the front door, Mallett went up to the front desk. The security guard asked him to sign in, but Mallett used a fake name. The security guard did not ask for an ID or inspect/see Mallett’s plastic bag.
After signing-in, Mallett walked down the hallway and entered the offices of Miami-Jacobs. He asked to speak with an admissions representative. Mr. Dowe, an employee in the admissions department, escorted Mallett to his office.
Without warning, Mallett pulled out a butcher’s knife and starting stabbing Dowe. They struggled. Dowe testified that “he was fighting for his life.” Luckily, Mr. Dowe managed to wrestle Mr. Mallett to the ground. While on top of Mallett, Dowe started punching Mallett, repeatedly.
Mr. Watson, another admissions officer, heard a commotion and went to investigate. Watson was concerned that Dowe would “kill this guy” and pulled Dowe away from Mallett. Although breathing, Mallett was unconscious on the ground. Watson restrained Mallett by placing his knee on Mallett’s chest. Having no experience physically restraining criminals, Watson decided to get up off Mallett. Mallett was still laying lifeless.
As Watson left the room, he saw Mr. Desir – a Miami-Jacobs student – standing in the entranceway. Watson said, “You don’t want to go back there.” Desir went back there anyway. He went up to Mallett, and said that he was laying on the ground, motionless. Desir left and returned to a nearby cubicle to study.
Mallett regained consciousness. However, Dowe, Watkins, and the security guard had left the scene to secure the area. Mallett then grabbed two knives, and attacked Desir.
Desir sued Miami-Jacobs for his injuries. Desir claimed that Maimi-Jacobs had a duty to protect him from being stabbed.
The entire case hinged on whether a duty existed. In Ohio, duties can arise in one of three ways: (1) imposed by law, (2) created by the relationship of the parties, or (3) was voluntarily undertaken (i.e. “assumed”). Plaintiff argued that the Defendant “undertook” a duty to protect Desir when employees “took control” of Mallett. Plaintiff also argued that Desir was a business-invitee and Defendant – as a business owner – owed a duty to protect Desir from foreseeable criminal acts.
On appeal there was one issue: did the defendants owe Desir a duty to warn or protect him from Mallett’s attack?
The Court determined that a special relationship did, in fact, exist. Desir was a student at Miami-Jacobs and, therefore, was a business invitee. As such, Defendant needed to act “reasonably” to keep the premises safe from known and/or foreseeable harms.
A key issue was whether Mallett’s attack on Desir was “foreseeable.” To make this determination, the Court needs to look at “the totality of the circumstances.” In other words, all things considered, would a reasonably prudent person have anticipated that Mallett would injure Desir? The Court answered, “no.”
First, this was the first crime ever reported on the premises. As such, there was no history of crime that would call for tighter security.
Second, the Defendant could not reasonably foresee that a “mentally ill individual would walk onto its premises and begin stabbing employees and students.” The prior attack on Dowe did not render the attack on Desire “foreseeable.” After attacking Dow, Mallett was unconscious on the ground. There was no sign that he would attack more people. As the Court stated, “a reasonably prudent person could not have anticipated that Mallett would rise from his unconscious state, acquire additional knives, and continue on his stabbing spree.” As such, the case was dismissed.
Click here for the full decision.