The Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District on March 7 affirmed a $1.5 million judgment for a man shot with his own gun by an assailant in a Joplin hospital’s parking area.
In a 2-1 decision, the court’s majority said hospital security knew the woman who attacked him had entered another couple’s car shortly before the attack and stolen prescription medications. Those “highly dangerous and invasive criminal activities,” Judge Ginger K. Gooch wrote, gave rise to Mercy Hospital Joplin’s duty to protect the injured plaintiff, Steve Harner.
But Judge Don E. Burrell dissented, arguing that such an exception threatened to swallow the general rule that businesses aren’t liable for the criminal actions of third parties.
“By definition, any crime is deemed to be harmful to someone or some thing,” Burrell wrote. “But not every crime endangers a person.”
In 2015, Harner was visiting a family member at Mercy Hospital when he returned to his vehicle to find a stranger, Kaylea Liska, inside. Liska shot Harner in the neck with Harner’s Ruger .380 handgun, which he had left in the car in compliance with a state law that forbids guns to be carried in hospitals. She was later sentenced to 20 years in prison for the shooting.
Hospital security was alerted after Liska earlier had entered an unlocked vehicle, urinated and defecated inside and stole medications before being confronted by the car’s owners. A security officer asked the dispatcher to review video footage for suspicious activity, but that wasn’t done and no other precautions were taken during the intervening period.
Although the hospital argued that it had no duty to protect Harner because his assailant’s actions weren’t foreseeable, Gooch said Liska’s disturbing actions and the lack of effort to locate her allowed the case to fall into the “known third person” exception to that general rule, even though Liska hadn’t previously been violent or displayed a weapon. Judge Jennifer R. Growcock concurred.
In his dissent, Burrell said his disagreement boiled down to a different view on the potential safety hazard the woman posed.
“Getting into a stranger’s automobile without permission to do so is certainly invasive, but opening an unlocked door is significantly less invasive than, for example, smashing a car window to gain entry to a vehicle, and it seems a bit of a stretch to say that entering an unlocked, unoccupied vehicle qualifies as the type of “dangerous criminal act” contemplated by” Missouri common law, he wrote.
Joseph P. Winget of Placzek, Winget & Placzek in Springfield, an attorney for Harner, didn’t immediately return a call. William Ray Price Jr. of Armstrong Teasdale, who argued for the hospital, declined to comment.
The case is Harner v. Mercy Hospital Joplin, SD37266.