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Restaurant Held Liable for Shooting Death of Two Patrons

February 5, 2014 By Abby V. Uzupis

On January 13, 2014, the Court of Special Appeals for Maryland affirmed a jury verdict holding Uno Restaurant Holdings Corp. liable for failing to protect two patrons from a fatal shooting that took place at an Uno Chicago Grill in Largo. The $2.3 million verdict in favor of the plaintiff-patrons was overturned in 2012 after the judge concluded that the evidence presented at trial did not support the jury’s finding that the fatal shooting was both foreseeable and  preventable.

The fatal shooting occurred on February 3, 2008 while the plaintiffs and their friends were watching the Super Bowl at the Uno’s bar. The plaintiffs and another group of patrons – who were sitting across the bar from plaintiffs – began arguing, cursing, and yelling at each other. According to the trial testimony, the arguing and yelling escalated over the course of an hour without intervention from Uno employees. At some point during that hour, one of the men involved in the verbal altercation left the bar to get a gun because he was “feeling uncomfortable” about the tension between the two groups of men. Shortly after returning to the bar, the patron with the gun was confronted by plaintiffs’ friend, who removed his shirt and necklace, and audibly threatened that the man “[was] not going to make it out of [the bar].” Between three to ten minutes after the violent threat was made, the fighting turned physical and the fatal shots were fired.

In light of these facts, the Court considered the following issues on appeal: (1) was there sufficient evidence of events that occurred immediately before the shooting that made plaintiffs’ shooting death foreseeable, and thereby imposing a duty upon the restaurant to protect the plaintiffs from the shooting; and (2) was there sufficient evidence that the jury could have found that the breach of the duty to protect was a “proximate cause” of the fatal shooting. The Court answered in the affirmative for both questions.

With regard to the existence of Uno’s duty to protect the plaintiffs, the Court held that Uno should have known that the fatal shooting was foreseeable and that they could have acted to prevent or mitigate the harm. The Court stated that, while the hour of yelling, arguing, and cursing was not in itself sufficient to impose a duty, the combination of the arguing and the violent threat made by plaintiffs’ friend (removing his shirt and jewelry, and saying “you’re not going to make it out of here.”) was enough to make the fatal shooting foreseeable. Moreover, the time between the threat and the shooting, about three to ten minutes, was enough time for Uno employees to take action to mitigate or avoid the shooting.

After finding that Uno had a duty and had breached that duty by failing to protect plaintiffs, the Court turned to the issue of causation. It held that a jury could have found that Uno’s breach was the actual cause of plaintiffs’ death – i.e. the breach was a substantial factor in the shooting death of plaintiffs. In addition, the jury could have also found that Uno’s breach was the proximate cause of the death. While Uno did not have to foresee the particular type of harm sustained, it was enough that plaintiffs’ “actual harm fell within a general field of danger which should have been anticipated.”

The Court remanded the case to the circuit court for the entry of judgment based on the jury’s verdict. Appellee’s have filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Court of Appeals for Maryland.

Case Information: Sneed v. Uno Restaurant Holdings Corp., No. 1699 (Md. App. Jan. 13, 2014).  Please note that this is an unreported opinion.