Parents sue hot dog shop after son’s shooting death

by Walter Olson on February 16, 2014

The parents of a man killed in a 3 a.m. altercation outside the Original Hot Dog Shop in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood have sued the shop’s owners, saying the failure to provide security personnel “was an outrageous, reckless and callous act, in disregard for the safety of its patrons.” [Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

{ 23 comments }

1 John Rohan 02.16.14 at 12:07 pm

One thing that bugs me about these kinds of lawsuits: isn’t it the city’s responsibility to provide security?? That’s what we pay taxes for. If a business wants to add more of their own, good on them, but I don’t think it should be a legal expectation. If anything, the family should be suing the city for not providing adequate protection. Or am I missing something here?

2 Jack Olson 02.16.14 at 2:05 pm

Yes, John Rohan, you are missing something here. A city has no legal duty to protect its residents. It simply would not be possible to have a city government if every victim of crime could sue the city for it.

3 Robert 02.16.14 at 2:18 pm

It’s probably irresponsible to conduct any sort of business in Oakland, CA.

The people there hate business–they smash windows on the Google employee bus–and there is rampant disregard for the law.

4 Walter Olson 02.16.14 at 2:29 pm

Robert: This is the Pittsburgh neighborhood by the name of Oakland, not the large city in northern California (which for the record includes hundreds of thousands of residents who would never think of smashing windows on the Google bus and hold a wide variety of views about business pro and con).

5 PaulB 02.16.14 at 3:09 pm

Walter,

While I’m sure the hundreds of thousands of Oakland, CA residents “hold a wide variety of views of business pro and con”, the percentage that hold pro views is discouragingly small. My favorite anecdote was from the article in the NYT Magazine section about the impact of the Occupy Wall Street campaign in Oakland where a fashionably progressive gallery owner joined in the march of thousands to shut down the Port of Oakland only to return to her shop and to find it looted.

6 gitarcarver 02.16.14 at 3:40 pm

Jack Olson,

What is interesting is that the shop had been hiring off duty policemen to act as security guards.

The shop eliminated the off duty hires and the police told the shop that would be unsafe.

So the question I would have is if the plaintiffs are arguing that the shop owners knew the place was “unsafe” and should pay, why isn’t the city accountable as they had were the ones saying it was unsafe?

If the police have no duty to create or maintain a safe environment, then why does the shop have that duty? Why does the government get a pass when they do the same thing that the business did?

(Oh, and God forbid that we should ever expect the people who actually caused the incident to be held accountable.)

7 Max Kennerly 02.16.14 at 4:31 pm

The Sheridans claim in their complaint that the O previously employed two off-duty Pittsburgh police officers to provide security on weekend nights, but attempted in 2012 to reduce that to just one.

When the owners were told by the city it would not be safe, they eliminated the officers altogether, the lawsuit said.

Yes, when a business owner knowingly disregards a risk just to save money, they can be held liable.

8 ras 02.16.14 at 4:58 pm

My conjecture:

1. The owners hired security guards.
2. This made the city look bad.
3. The city came by and told the owners that, by having guards, they, the owners, would be liable if anything untoward then happened anyway. The city does not like being made to look bad.
4. The owners confirmed the liability danger with their own lawyers and gave up on having guards.
5. The owners prob thought that this meant that they would not be liable any longer since it was now clear that the city police would be responsible for law and order on the city streets.

A reasonable conjecture?

9 John Rohan 02.16.14 at 5:20 pm

Jack Olsen,

Similarly, it simply would not be possible to own a business if every victim of crime could sue the business for it.

10 rxc 02.16.14 at 5:43 pm

@Max – ..” when a business owner knowingly disregards a risk just to save money, they can be held liable.”

I think that you don’t understand the difference between a risk and a hazard. Risk is the likelihood, usually expressed as a probability per unit time, that a hazardous event could happen. It comes with an uncertainty value for that probability. There are an infinite number of hazards to people who frequent every business in existence that are associated with running that business. They range from paper cuts that could get infected to equipment that could cause electrocution to the possibility that some unsupervised child will ingest some small item and choke on it. Each hazard has a probability associated with it. If you expect business owners to take active steps to prevent every possible hazard, no matter how low the probability, you are asking for an unreasonable amount of care, IMHO.

11 Andrew_M_Garland 02.16.14 at 7:19 pm

The solution is simple, although not now available to the besieged owners of The Original Hot Dog Shop. The store should have had a sign warning customers and passers by, and drivers by, that they risked sudden death from other customers (and et cetera). And, that eating hot dogs posed a risk of choking, heart disease, distraction while driving, and early death. Fair warning.

In the US, the difference between happiness and ruin is a sign and a pamphlet warning people of the possible dangers in life. Otherwise, lawyers such as Mr. Kennerly will remind them with lawsuits that they are responsible for whatever goes on around them, because they have money, and irresponsibly want to save it, to the detriment of everyone in the society.

12 Greg Dwyer 02.16.14 at 7:47 pm

@gitarcarver:

Another interesting point is that the police were the ones being hired off duty and then when they were let go, they said it would be unsafe. One would think there is a definite conflict of interest there and I would not put it past some departments to slow calls to there because of it.

13 Max Kennerly 02.16.14 at 9:37 pm

@rxc:

The decedent wasn’t abducted by aliens or eaten by a giant spider. He was shot to death at a business that was so unsafe that the city refused to let its officers serve there off-duty without backup, so the cheapskate owners decided not to bother with any security at all.

How more obvious could a risk get?

14 gasman 02.16.14 at 10:49 pm

@Max:

cheapskate owners? I’m thinking that two cops at 3am would cost at least $100 per hour. That’s a lot of hot dogs just to hire them. So if the price of the hot dog goes up and patrons stay away, who is being cheap.
The alternative is just to throw cities away, gate the ‘burbs so that the undesirables stay in the high crime area and we let them rot some more. Or we can support a viable economy that might someday reverse the urban decay.

Fast food at 3am in any city is a higher risk proposition than at 3pm, and any person who does not know that is hopelessly out of touch. These folks knew that they could run into sketchy dudes, and it was bad luck that they did.

15 mjburgess 02.16.14 at 10:51 pm

Yes, because business owners didn’t properly raise the miscreants who frequent their establishments. I think the parents if the decedent recognize empty pockets and deep ones with assets and/or insurance.

16 gitarcarver 02.16.14 at 10:54 pm

Greg Dwyer,

Agreed.

After looking around, I have a few additional questions.

The DA released a series of surveillance stills taken across the street from the shop:

http://www.wtae.com/news/local/allegheny/surveillance-photos-fatal-oakland-shooting/21528666

Zachary Sheridan (the victim) was shot in the middle of the street running away from the shooter, one Isaiah Smith, who appears to be standing either in the street or in the right of way.

This leads to my question of whether private security guards are responsible for actions that happen off of the property, or whether they are responsible if the actual crime is committed off the property but the “start” of the incident starts on their property. (In this case, the sidewalk in front of the shop.)

There is a list of articles that can be seen here on the whole mess:

http://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/tag/zach-sheridan/

Finally, if previous cases hold any indication, the shop is in trouble because they are looking into changes in the security around the shop.

This gets back to the un-winnable problem that businesses face of:

1) “you should have known”
2) “if you take steps to prevent an incident, you knew there was a problem and did not do enough to address the problem”
3)”after the incident, doing something indicates there was an issue that you failed to address previously.”

17 gitarcarver 02.16.14 at 11:03 pm

Max,

He was shot to death at a business that was so unsafe that the city refused to let its officers serve there off-duty without backup….

Huh?

The off duty officers were let go by the shop – not because the city didn’t allow them to work there without a backup.

Secondly, Sheridan was shot in the middle of the street – not on the property.

Are you saying that the off duty police officers or even “rent-a-cops” have a duty to follow people off the property and engage in a gun battle?

To me, that is the epitome of “risk.”

18 David M. Nieporent 02.17.14 at 3:21 am

Max, the question isn’t whether the risk is obvious; the question is why the owners have a duty to avoid it. According to the article, he wasn’t shot to death “at a business”; he was shot to death on the street.

19 Bill Robelen 02.17.14 at 3:08 pm

It does bother me that in Mississippi, where I live, the courts have held that a business may in some cases be held liable for someone shooting or robbing someone else in the parking lot. The standard the courts use is if the owner should have known that the area was to dangerous. I personally believe that the legislatures need to shut this avenue of lawsuits down completely. If a business is sued because they did not employ private security to police the parking lots accessible to the general public, then they should be able to get a refund on every cent in taxes they have paid to the city.

20 david7134 02.17.14 at 6:04 pm

How about the situation that would exist if the shop provided security, but something bad happened regardless. Wouldn’t that be grounds for suit as the security was not adequate to prevent all violent incidents? Now, it that is true, then the shop could argue that no matter what they did, it would be in trouble.

21 kimsch 02.18.14 at 2:39 am

Funny, my take was:
1) shop hires 2 off duty cops
2) shop decides to go with only 1
3) cops say it’d be unsafe
4) shop drops both

for 3) i saw it as cops think only 1 is unsafe FOR THE COP…

22 Eric 02.18.14 at 1:15 pm

Owners guilty of having tangible assets that can be converted to lawyers’ fees.

23 Bumper 02.18.14 at 3:45 pm

Off-duty details are a common way for cops to supplement their income, I suspect that the rebuff that two were necessary was an attempt to keep a detail slot, which probably wasn’t really needed. To which the owner said to himself, “screw it, I don’t need no stinkin’ cops” and fired both, a decision which was wrong from both sides.

Unless the perp chased the deceased out of the store, and/or they allowed the perp to get really intoxicated, it appears that this was a street crime. But I’m sure the jury will see it the other way.

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