Another Remarkable Torts Case:

The case — Kelly v. Kroger Co., 484 F.2d 1362 (10th Cir. 1973) — is from the 1970s, but it continues to be cited, and its logic is consistent with the logic of other recent negligent provocation arguments, so I thought I’d pass it along:

[D]ecedent was a customer in defendant’s store in Kansas City, Kansas, when a holdup took place. The robbers entered the front of the store with guns, took money from the checkout stands, and then ordered the store manager to open the safe in his office. The opening of the safe caused an alarm to sound at the Kansas City police department, but not at the store.

Several police officers responded immediately to their alarm, and when they entered the front door, the robber ran to the rear part of the store. The police fired a shot at one of the robbers at this time in the store. The decedent was in the rear of the store, and a robber seized her as a hostage or a shield. As the robber left the store at the front, he forced her with him up the street a block or so as he attempted to escape. The police followed and the robber then shot and killed the decedent. The police then shot at the robber as he ran some distance, and captured him.

The attempted robbery took place about 1:30 in the afternoon. During the course of the robbery, the store employees did not sound any other alarm nor attempt to direct or assist the police. This store had been robbed about a month before. Some fourteen robberies of grocery stores in the northeastern part of the city, where the store here concerned is located, had taken place in the prior eighteen-month period. An armed guard had been stationed in this store from time to time.

The complaint is based on the theory that the defendant was negligent in store procedure it had adopted to be followed during the course of such a robbery. The negligence alleged is thus the action taken once the holdup was in progress. The allegations are directed particularly to the silent alarm attached to the store safe….

The trial court, in granting summary judgment for the defendant, held in effect that no negligence was stated in the allegations, and even had there been it could not have been the proximate cause of the injury because the consequences could not reasonably have been foreseen….

The standard of care owed to business invitees [under Kansas law] is … one of “due care to keep the premises reasonably safe” for their use, but the proprietor is not an insurer of their safety…. The defendant had issued a pamphlet to its employees telling them what to do in the event of a holdup. The particular emphasis in the pamphlet was to do nothing to excite or startle the robbers. It stated in part that many robberies are by young persons who might start shooting if something unexpected should happen. The employees were warned particularly not to give any verbal alarm in the street because this would greatly increase the probability of injury. Thus the plaintiff asserts that the triggering of the silent alarm was not in accordance with the instructions given employees, was not a prudent act, and did not show an exercise of due care for the safety of the customers….

[Under Kansas law, it] is perhaps an aspect of “foreseeability,” not so much that a particular incident may occur, but once one is in progress, when the danger to the customer is evident. Thus under this standard if there is an opportunity to comprehend the danger, negligence can then become a jury question…. The same theory is advanced by the plaintiff in his complaint, that is, that the danger to customers and employees of the store during the course of the robbery was apparent, and that the wrong action was taken — action which served to increase the hazard and which in fact caused the injury. Under this theory of the case, the granting of summary judgment was error.

Note that this is not a case claiming that it was negligent not to hire a security guard, or that the security guard was negligent in reacting too aggressively to the robbers, or even that a store employee was negligent in refusing to hand over the money to the robbers (a highly problematic theory, in my view, but I set it aside here). The theory of liability is simply that it was negligent to trigger a silent alarm that called the police.

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