When a grocery store’s employees negligently kill a suspected shoplifter in attempting to detain him for police, can the store use the theory of self defense to escape liability for wrongful death?
The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday answered that question in the affirmative in the case of a man who died from asphyxiation after being accosted by Giant Eagle employees outside a Rootstown store.
Several years ago, Paul Niskanen rolled out of the local Giant Eagle with a shopping cart filled with $289.02 in groceries that he hadn’t paid for.
To this day it is unknown whether his failure to pay was a tragic mistake or if he intended to steal the items.
The store’s manager confronted Paul outside and a scuffle ensued. Another store employee and two passersby joined the fray and finally succeeded in pinning Paul to the ground.
Police arrived a short time later, but by the time they pulled the men off Paul he had lost consciousness and didn’t have a pulse. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.
Paul’s mother, Mary Niskanen, sued Giant Eagle for negligently training its employees and for store employees negligently applying “undue restraint” to detain Paul.
But could Giant Eagle avoid liability by claiming that its employees acted in self defense?
Mary contended that self defense was unavailable to Giant Eagle because it was inconsistent with the company’s refusal to admit that its employees acted to intentionally injure Paul.
The Ohio Supreme Court refused to rule out the affirmative defense in negligence cases per se.
Instead, the court said that whether a defendant can assert self defense depends on the nature of the claim and the particular facts of the case.
Plainly, Giant Eagle shouldn’t have been allowed to argue self defense to defeat Mary’s claim that the company was negligent for not training its employees in industry-standard shoplifter-apprehension techniques.
“It simply makes no sense to say that Giant Eagle failed to provide the appropriate training to defend itself from Paul’s attack,” the court explained. “The failure to train occurred well before the attack began and was not performed in response to Paul’s actions.”
But there was no harm with respect to that cause of action because, even though a jury found that Giant Eagle was liable for negligent failure to train, under the state’s comparative negligence law Mary was barred from recovery since the jury also found Paul to be 60 percent liable for his own death.
That left Mary’s undue restraint claim.
Regarding that claim, the court found that self defense was clearly relevant under the facts of the case.
“Reasonable minds could conclude that (1) the [Giant Eagle] employees did not start the fight, since Paul threw the first punch, thereby escalating an otherwise peaceful encounter into a violent one, (2) the employees had a bona fide belief that they were in danger of great bodily harm, since Paul had punched each of them and continued to fight as others tried to restrain him, and that the only way of ending the fight was to subdue and restrain Paul, and (3) the employees did not violate a duty to retreat or avoid the danger, since they were acting in their rights to pursue and detain Paul … and then merely responded to Paul’s violent attacks until he was subdued,” the court said. (Niskanen v. Giant Eagle)
— Pat Murphy
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