Indiana Court of Appeals Adopts Broad View of “Foreseeability” in Premises Liability Case

On March 7, 2018 the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment in favor of Steak ‘n Shake Operations, Inc., appearing to broaden the duties owed by property owners to business invitees. In Hamilton v. Steak ‘n Shake Operations, Inc., the issue was whether Steak ‘n Shake owed a duty to protect a customer shot in the face during a conflict with another patron.

In Hamilton, the plaintiff was eating at a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant with her brother when a group of individuals began taunting and verbally threatening them over a period of thirty minutes. Restaurant employees witnessed the escalation of the threats but did not take any action until it appeared a physical altercation was imminent. Moments after instructing both parties to leave, the altercation turned physical and the plaintiff was shot.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Steak ‘n Shake, determining the event was not reasonably foreseeable and, therefore, there was no duty owed to the patron. However, the appellate court reversed, stating: “[the] foreseeability analysis should focus on the general class of persons of which the plaintiff was a member and whether the harm suffered was of a kind normally to be expected – without addressing the specific facts of the occurrence.”

The Hamilton court used a very broad analytical framework, and determined the restaurant had knowledge of the escalating situation and should have known there was “some probability or likelihood” one of its patrons could be physically harmed.

Obtaining summary judgment in negligence cases in Indiana has historically been very difficult, and this ruling is in keeping with that trend, with the appellate court endorsing a very broad scope for a premises owner’s duty to its invitees. Steak ‘n Shake is expected to seek a review of this decision by the Indiana Supreme Court.