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Williams v. Circle K Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

August 5, 2019

PRISCILLA WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
CIRCLE K STORES, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER I. INTRODUCTION

          STEPHEN M. DOYLE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On January 24, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1-1) in state court bringing claims of negligence, wantonness, and negligent/wanton supervision, hiring, and retention against Defendant. Id. at 4-5. Plaintiff's claims arise from an incident at one of Defendant's convenience stores where an unidentified individual installed a hidden camera in the women's restroom and Plaintiff discovered the camera while using that restroom. Id. at 3-4. Plaintiff argues that Defendants breached their duty to her to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition and to protect her from harm. Id. at 4. On August 7, 2017, Defendant removed (Doc. 1) Plaintiff's Complaint to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1446. The parties have consented (Docs. 9, 10) to jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge.

         On March 4, 2019, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 26). Plaintiff filed a Response (Doc. 33) and Defendant Replied (Doc. 34) arguing that Plaintiff failed to show that Defendant owed Plaintiff a duty to protect her from the criminal acts of a third-party as required by Alabama negligence law. Id. at 10; see Saccuzzo v. Krystal Co., 646 So.2d 595, 596 (Ala. 1994). In her Response (Doc. 33) to Defendant's Motion, Plaintiff argues that, because she had a “special relationship” with Defendant, she falls within an exception to the general rule that a person has no duty to protect another from criminal acts of a third person. Id. at 8-9; (citing Saccuzzo, 646 So.2d at 596). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that she had a special relationship with Defendant because she was in a “unique and vulnerable relationship” with Defendant when she used its bathroom and because Defendant had “notice of the propensity of crime to happen in the area. . . .” Id. In its Reply (Doc. 34) to Plaintiff's Response, Defendant argues that it did not possess actual or constructive notice of any danger to Plaintiff because the particular criminal activity that formed the basis of Plaintiff's Complaint was unforeseeable. Id. at 5 (citing New Addition Club, Inc. v. Vaughn, 903 So.2d 68, 76 (Ala. 2004)). For the reasons that follow, the undersigned concludes that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is due to be granted.

         II. UNDISPUTED FACTS[1]

         On February 3, 2017, Plaintiff and her family were traveling from Birmingham, Alabama to Dothan, Alabama. During the trip, Plaintiff began to feel sick, so the family stopped at Defendant's store on Vaughn Road in Montgomery, Alabama in order for Plaintiff to use Defendant's restroom. (Doc. 33-1) at 27:1-14. When Plaintiff entered the store, she proceeded directly to the women's restroom. Id. at 29:7-9. While Plaintiff was using the toilet in the women's restroom, she looked towards the sink and noticed something sticking up from a wrap on the plumbing underneath the sink. Id. at 27:7-15. Plaintiff reached out and grabbed the object, which she immediately recognized as a camera. Id. at 29:16-21. Plaintiff tore the lens off of the camera, threw all pieces of the device in the trash can, and exited the restroom. Id. at 29:18-21.

         Plaintiff reported her discovery to the employee on duty, who then called the store manager and notified her of the situation. Id. at 30:6-19; (Doc. 33-3) at 9:9-12. The store manager was off shift at the time of the incident, but returned to the store after receiving the call. (Doc. 33-3) at 44:4-16; (Doc. 33-4) at ¶¶ 4-6. The store manager then called her supervisor and the police. (Doc. 33-4) at ¶¶ 8-9. A subsequent investigation revealed surveillance footage of an African-American male entering the women's restroom about an hour prior to Plaintiff using the restroom. See (Doc. 33) at 5; (Doc. 27) at 7-8.

         Prior to this incident, the only recent, known criminal activity that occurred inside the subject store involved a non-violent theft from the store's office in December of 2015. (Doc. 27-3) at 25:11-18; (Doc. 27-4) at ¶19; (Doc. 27-5) at 86:20-87:4. Additionally, prior to the subject incident, there was a shooting on nearby Vaughn Road, and a stray bullet from that shooting struck the store's front windows. (Doc. 27-3) at 25:11-26:1.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 requires that summary judgment be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “The moving party bears ‘the initial responsibility of informing the . . . court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.'” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1259 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotations omitted)). Where the moving party makes such a showing, the burden shifts to the non-movant, who must go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of material fact does exist. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 257 (1986). The applicable substantive law identifies which facts are material. Id. at 248. A fact is not material if a dispute over that fact will not affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. An issue is genuine when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 249-50.

         In resolving a motion for summary judgment, the court must view all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Patton v. Triad Guar. Ins. Corp., 277 F.3d 1294, 1296 (11th Cir. 2002). But, the court is bound only to draw those inferences that are reasonable. “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted); see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586 (once the moving party has met its burden under Rule 56(a), the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts”).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiff's Argument

         Plaintiff asserts claims of negligence and wantonness[2] against Defendant and avers that Defendant breached its duty to protect her from harm under three alternative theories of liability. See generally (Doc. 33).

         First, Plaintiff argues that Defendant had a duty to protect her from the criminal acts of third parties based on her “special relationship” with Defendant. Id. at 8-9. Citing an exception to “[t]he general rule . . . that ‘[i]t is difficult to impose liability on one person for an intentional criminal act committed by a third person, ” Plaintiff asserts that a special relationship existed because: 1) she was in a “vulnerable” state; and 2) Defendant had “notice of the propensity of ...


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