In 2008, three men were murdered in a Prince George’s County Uno’s restaurant while watching the Super Bowl. As the big game approaches six years later, the victims’ families may finally have closure through a wrongful death ruling that should also make restaurant owners consider their security protocols.
In a unanimous decision, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reinstated a $2.3 million verdict against Uno Chicago Grill in Largo, agreeing with a jury that found that Uno’s employees negligently stood by as a bar dispute violently escalated into the fatal shootings of three patrons at the restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday in 2008.
The jury’s finding of negligence had been vacated in Circuit Court by a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. However, the appeals court found that the trial judge had mistakenly overruled the jury trial verdict in saying that the murders were neither foreseeable nor preventable. The ruling had until then left the families of victims Terrance Lynne Sneed, Charles Dontee Harrison and Curtis Poston empty handed in their wrongful death claims.
“We are very pleased that the jury’s judgment and verdict has been upheld by the Court of Special Appeals. The jury applied the established legal principle that a business owner must take reasonable action to protect its patrons from imminent harm from other patrons and parties,” said plaintiff’s attorney Jonathan Azrael, a partner at Azrael, Franz, Schawb & Lipowitz. “[Uno’s] knew that harm to patrons was imminent and did absolutely nothing to protect them or prevent the violence and murders. The jury got it right, and we are glad the families of those unfortunate victims have been vindicated.”
Super Bowl XLII is remembered by most people for the incredible catch made by Giants’ receiver David Tyree, as New York capped a stunning comeback over the highly favored and previously unbeaten New England Patriots. For Sandra “Kay” Sneed and Beverly Poston, it is remembered as the day that their sons were tragically killed after a bar fight was allowed to go too far.
Several members of the Poston family and Sneed, were watching the game when Johnson and three others entered the restaurant and sat across from them at the bar. Shortly thereafter, an argument about the championship game grew into loud and profanity laced personal attacks. It was so volatile that many other patrons left the restaurant. Poston and Johnson engaged in an especially heated exchange that lasted for at least 10 minutes.
Witnesses testified that neither the manager nor any other employee attempted to defuse the situation. A brawl eventually ensued, and Johnson pulled out a gun and shot Sneed and Poston inside the bar. Harrison was chased and shot in the parking lot.
“We were absolutely devastated knowing it could have been prevented, but had nowhere to turn as no attorney would take our case,” said Beverly Poston, mother of Harrison. “These lawyers went out on a limb for us when no one else was willing to fight for justice for our children.”
Azrael, Franz Schwab & Lipowitz sued the restaurant in Prince George’s County Circuit Court on January 25th, 2011 on behalf of the families, alleging negligence and wrongful death. At the trial, witnesses testified that bartenders and other employees did nothing to alleviate the argument as it grew louder and more hostile over the course of an hour, despite company policy requiring intervention, and the availability of security personnel and off-duty police working at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre where Uno’s was located. On August 30, 2012, a jury awarded the families of Sneed and Harrison damages of $2,333,475. Judge Michael R. Pearson issued a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in October 2012 on the restaurant’s motion, stating “that the events of that particular day could not have been foreseeable to any of the individuals that were in a position of authority or who were employees of the Uno’s restaurant.”
However, testimony indicated that the incident very clearly was far more than typical “trash talking during a football game not unusual in a bar on Super Bowl Sunday,” said Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff in the court’s January 13th decision to reinstate the jury’s verdict. She cited the argument’s increasing volume and rancor, as well as threats of violence as employees stood by idly and did not call mall security or off-duty police working at the mall.
Sadly, it took nearby Prince George’s County police only 90 seconds to respond to the emergency call after shots were fired, a call that the court stated should have been made much sooner.
“Reasoning minds could determine that the decedents’ deaths could have been prevented if Uno’s had followed their own ejection policy procedures when tensions escalated between the two groups and either asked the guests to leave or called security,” said Judge Graeff. “A reasonable jury could determine that physical harm was a foreseeable consequence of Uno’s failure to intervene in the threatening altercation.”
In reaching its decision, the appeals court specifically dismissed Uno’s argument that a shooting was not foreseeable solely because a loud offensive argument was taking place. Rather, the court concluded that it is not necessary to establish the likelihood of a fatal shooting, only that the actual potential for harm falls within a “general field of danger” that a responsible party should anticipate or expect. The plaintiffs’ attorneys said that it is an important victory for victims of violence. The victory may resonate with restaurant owners who plan to use events like the Super Bowl to draw crowds for extended periods of time in sometimes heated environments.
“The decision sends a message to business owners that they have to take action and intervene in hostile situations where violence is foreseeable,” said John Solter of Azrael, Franz, Schawb & Lipowitz. “It also says that they can’t provide more alcohol and more food and then just sit by and do nothing when push comes to shove. They have to act.”