With recent mass shooting events dominating news headlines across the United States, it can seem as though gun violence has become ubiquitous in American life. And statistics sadly confirm that mass shootings have become a daily occurrence, with 2023 on pace to be one of the worst years for mass shootings in the U.S. on record. According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit that tracks gun violence occurrences, in the first half of 2023 alone there were more than 300 mass shootings where four or more people were shot – an average of more than one mass shooting a day.
And Maryland has not been immune. In addition to higher-profile incidents in the recent past, such as the 2018 shooting at a Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, the Gun Violence Archive reports that several of the more than 300 mass shootings in America so far in 2023 occurred in Maryland.
In this context, it is worth noting what the Appellate Court of Maryland recently warned about mass shootings and the potential premises liability claims that could stem from such incidents in 2023 and beyond.
In Mitchell v. Rite Aid of Maryland, Inc., 257 Md. App. 273, 290 A.3d 1125 (2023), the Appellate Court of Maryland considered civil claims arising from a shooting that occurred on September 20, 2018, at a Rite Aid warehouse facility in Aberdeen, Maryland, committed by an employee of a temporary staffing company assigned to work at the facility who gained access to the facility using her ID badge and proceeded to open fire on her coworkers, killing three and wounding several more. Id. at 281–82.
Several individuals who were injured while working at the facility filed civil claims, including a claim against Rite Aid for negligent failure to provide adequate security at the facility, and the case came up on appeal after the Circuit Court for Baltimore County granted summary judgment in favor of Rite Aid. Id. Although the full scope of the Mitchell case is beyond this article, what the court said about premises liability in the context of mass shootings is particularly noteworthy.
In the very first sentence of the opinion, the Mitchell Court wrote: “It is a somber and sobering fact that the steady increase in the number of mass shootings has impelled both public and private organizations to begin considering security measures responsive to that risk.” Id. at 281. On that point, the court noted that the Mitchell plaintiffs’ security operations expert had opined that “in his view, the ‘appropriate standard of care’ for a business such as Rite Aid required the implementation of an active shooter policy” and “that employees at the distribution center should have received training on how to respond” to active shooter threats. Id. at 291. And in the context of arguing that the criminal act here was foreseeable to support a premises liability claim, the plaintiffs argued that “Rite Aid owed [them] a duty to provide competent security personnel and security measures responsive to the threat of an active shooter incident,” which the Mitchell plaintiffs claimed “was foreseeable particularly due to the recent Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis.” Id. at 314.
Although acknowledging that Maryland courts “have not yet addressed a premises liability claim arising out of a mass shooting,” the Mitchell court noted that other states had done so, citing to cases in other jurisdictions as providing “additional insight into the evidence necessary to hold a property owner liable for the actions of a third-party shooter.” See id. at 320–21, citing among others, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado’s decision in Axelrod v. Cinemark Holdings, Inc., 65 F. Supp. 3d 1093 (D. Colo. 2014), a case arising out of the infamous Aurora movie theater shootings.
While the court ultimately held that the Mitchell plaintiffs had failed to produce evidence to establish that Rite Aid had any duty to provide heightened security measures to protect employees at the facility from the specific shooter or from potential active shooter situations generally, the court specifically warned as follows in its conclusion on this point:
We caution that, as grim statistics and the development of the law in our sister states foreshadow, the standards of care surrounding a business owner’s duty to protect invitees from gun violence are not static and will continue to evolve in light of “common sense perceptions of the risks created by various conditions and circumstances.” Axelrod, 65 F. Supp. 3d at 1100.
Id. at 328–29.
As the Mitchell decision warned, the landscape here is quickly changing, and shooting incidents that were considered unforeseeable in the recent past may not stay that way for long. Accordingly, businesses that ignore that such incidents are becoming more prevalent in the modern age of mass shootings may face increased risk of potential liability should such a tragic incident occur. As the Mitchell Court emphasized: “foreseeability includes whatever is likely enough in the setting of modern life that a reasonably thoughtful person would take account of it in guiding practical conduct.” Id. at 329 (quoting Axelrod, 65 F. Supp. 3d at 1100) (emphasis in original).