Morrow & Sheppard LLP is pleased to report the recent $4 million settlement, during trial, of a negligent security case brought in Harris County, Texas state court.

Our Houston trial attorneys at the firm represented the family of a man who was stabbed to death in an apartment complex parking lot. We filed suit against the management company responsible for the complex. To prove our case, we developed evidence that the stabber had been living at the complex with his grandmother for years prior to the stabbing. We alleged the management company had been warned the stabber was dangerous but failed to evict the grandmother. We also developed evidence that the management company discontinued security guards shortly before the stabbing.

The defendant argued the stabbing was a domestic dispute, the people involved knew each other, and security would not have prevented the incident. The defendant also denied that the stabber had a violent criminal history, and denied having been warned that the stabber was living at the complex. The defendant claimed they took over the complex a few weeks before the stabbing and had not been provided with any reason to believe security measures were necessary.

Negligent security cases like this one are notoriously difficult to prove. There is a built-in defense: the defendant simply blames the criminal, to whom the jury is allowed to assign most or all of the responsibility.

While it is easy to blame the criminal, landlords do have a duty to take reasonable steps to make sure for-profit premises are reasonably safe and secure for tenants and guests. When landlords fail to satisfy their duty, they can be held liable. We argued this was a case in which management should be held partially responsible.

A difficult quirk of this case was that the stabber had been acquitted in a criminal murder trial.  Apparently, the district attorney had trouble getting witnesses to tell the whole truth.

Criminal acquittals are typically not relevant in civil proceedings because the burden of proof is lower in civil cases than in criminal cases. Criminal cases typically require unanimous guilty verdicts, proven beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas Texas civil cases require 10/12 jurors to find fault based on a preponderance of the evidence. The Rodney King and O.J. Simpson civil cases are high-profile examples of cases in which the defendants were found not guilty in criminal proceedings, but liable in civil proceedings.

While not relevant or admissible in our negligent security case, the acquittal greatly affected the way we argued and presented evidence. We did not want to “open the door” to the acquittal being presented to the jury and confusing the issues. More importantly, the acquittal put additional pressure on us to win the case. We did not want the victim’s family to be denied justice twice.

After we presented evidence and closing arguments in a two-week jury trial, the defendant settled the case. The jury was deliberating at the time.

After the settlement was finalized, the judge allowed both sides to speak with the jury. The jurors provided great feedback about their important service and their thoughts on the case. The jury told us they had unanimously answered the Court’s first question “yes,” which meant they had found the apartment complex negligent. They were still debating damages. It is anybody’s guess what the damages award would have been.

After speaking with both sides for quite a while, several members of the jury walked around the room to embrace our client, the decedent’s mother. This was a cathartic moment for her, and for us. Mom finally had justice. There would be no appeal. This was truly a great result.

In an interesting side note, we told the jury about the acquittal. They all said the acquittal did not matter, and wouldn’t have affected their verdict. They understood the difference between criminal guilt and civil liability.  This was consistent with the jury focus group research and mock trials we conducted before the trial, in which we told mock jurors about the acquittal to see how they would react. As is nearly always the case, juries understand difficult and complex issues and decide them correctly. Juries get it right.

Several law firms turned down the case before we took it on. From then on, the defendant and its representatives told us they would never pay $250,000 to settle the case. The $4 million settlement included attorneys’ fees and costs totaling $1.6 million.

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