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Sue the Right Entity in Premises Liability Cases

Ms. Vickie Jones, the plaintiff in the 2011 case of Jones v. Basha, Inc., had a great case. While in the parking lot of a convenience store called Central Food Market, she was viciously carjacked. The store, she alleged, had failed to provide security of any kind to protect its customers. Hers was to be a classic case of premises liability—a negligence claim based on the defendant’s failure to make its property safe for the public (a slip-and-fall case is another example of a premises liability claim). Her lawyer, however, made a critical error in judgment: he sued the wrong corporation. How could such a thing happen?

What Happened in the Case

Basha, Inc., was the owner of the building in which Central Food Market was housed and the lot on which it stood. However, many years before the carjacking occurred, Basha, Inc. had sold the property to a company called Becker Enterprises. To prove its sale, Basha relied on an affidavit from its president, who asserted that, although the company owned the building housing the store, he had sold Central Food Market to Becker Enterprises in 1997. He stated that after the sale, the company retained no control over Central Food Market or its business. The president of Becker Enterprises confirmed this understanding, saying he ran the day-to-day business of Central Food Market and was responsible for maintaining the premises.

The lease agreement between the two companies did not contain any specific language regarding the provision of security at Central Food Market. However, it clearly placed the responsibility for maintaining the premises with Becker Enterprises, the new company. Additionally, it required Becker to maintain a comprehensive public liability insurance policy. In short, there was abundant evidence available that, in reality, it was Becker Enterprises, not Basha, Inc., that really was responsible for Central Food Market.

Ms. Jones’ counsel tried appealing the case to the Florida Court of Appeals, but to no avail. The court noted that, in general, a landlord and tenant share responsibility for providing adequate security for premises they jointly own and control. However, in the Court’s own words, the law is clear that “[i]f the landlord surrenders possession and control over the leased premises to the tenant, the landlord is not liable for injury to a third party that occurs on the premises.” Thus, because the evidence clearly established that Basha was, at most, the landlord, Ms. Jones’ lawsuit was dismissed. Summary judgment in favor of the defendant was appropriate.

One Mistake Cost Everything

Such an outcome is not necessarily fatal to Ms. Jones’ claims. Her counsel might have an opportunity to bring a new lawsuit against the proper defendant. But by that time, the statute of limitations may have run. Or evidence might be lost. Or witnesses’ memories may have faded. And moreover, Ms. Jones has already been through the ordeal of litigating the claim once – and she likely paid for the privilege.

But this unfortunate result easily could have been avoided with proper diligence. Her counsel could have more thoroughly researched the relationship between the companies. Or could have served discovery requests designed to figure it out. Or could have simply moved to amend his complaint to add Becker Enterprises as a defendant when he learned of their involvement. Don’t hire a lawyer like that to handle your negligent security claim; hire a diligent, attentive lawyer like those at Gary Roberts & Associates, P.A.

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