Leesville Bank not Liable for Wrongful Death: Louisiana Supreme Court Finds no Breach of Duty
At 1:30 a.m. on November 13, 1992 Jesse Pinsonneault left his job as assistant manager at a pizza parlor and went to deposit the daily receipts into the night deposit box at nearby Merchants & Farmers Bank & Trust Company in Leesville. Tragically, 23 year old Jesse never completed his task and was robbed, shot, and killed by two escaped convicts. Jesse’s parents James and Debra Mae Pinsonneault brought a wrongful death suit against the bank where they alleged that the bank failed to provide adequate security for after hours patrons.
After trial, the trial court ruled that the bank did owe Jesse duty but that the duty was not breached and therefore the bank was not liable. The plaintiffs appealed and the appeals court ruled that the trial court was manifestly erroneous in determining there was no breach of duty and held that the bank was liable. Following the appeals court decision the Supreme Court of Louisiana handed down Posecaci v. Walmart Stores, Inc. where they adopted a balancing test for determining when business owners owe a duty to provide security for their patrons. In light of this decision the Supreme Court of Louisiana sent the Pinsonneault case back to the Court of Appeals where they reexamined the duty issue and reaffirmed their previous decision.
In 2002, the Supreme Court of Louisiana considered the case again and found that the Court of Appeals was not correct in reversing the trial court’s decision because they did not appropriately apply the manifest error standard.
According to the decision, Louisiana courts employ a duty-risk analysis to determine whether to impose liability under La.Civ. Code art. 2315. The analysis requires plaintiffs to prove five elements to be successful. First, the defendant had a duty to conform their conduct to a standard. Second, they did not conform their conduct. Third, the defendants failure to act appropriately was a cause in fact of the plaintiff’s injuries. Fourth, the conduct was a legal cause of the injuries. And fifth, damages resulted.
While business owners generally do not have the duty to protect others from acts of third parties they must implement reasonable measures to protect patrons from criminal acts that are foreseeable.
Foreseeability was the key factor in the Court’s decision here. There had only been two armed robberies of the bank during the daytime in the fourteen years prior to the attack, and there had never been an attack on a customer (or any attack on a night time depositor in all of Vernon Parish). Because a similar crime never occurred at the bank previously, the Court found that customers faced a low crime risk and there was not foreseeability that would require the bank to employ heightened security measures.
Additionally, while the views of both courts regarding whether the bank took adequate precautions were permissible, because the determination is a factual one, it requires a balancing of factors. The balancing of facts in a case is best accomplished at the trial court level and it is not the role of an appeals court to second guess the trial courts determination but merely to pinpoint clear error if it is present. Here the trial court appropriately took into account the lighting, fencing, shrubs, etc. and determined the security measures were adequate.
This case demonstrates just how much courts tend to defer to the decisions of a trial court, particular regarding factual determinations. Trial courts have the resources to take into account the nuances of the facts of each situation. The factual findings of a trial court will be upheld even if the view of the facts taken by both courts are reasonable.