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On Wednesday, a Maryland jury awarded two women a combined $1.6 million in a negligence lawsuit in which they argued that Nordstrom failed to properly protect customers from a mentally ill woman armed with knives.
While it seems that the verdict is a signal to businesses that they must protect customers from dangerous persons, this is in fact untrue.
The duty that businesses owe their patrons is much more subtle.
The Nordstrom lawsuit was based on an event in 2005 during which a woman, armed with four knives, entered the store and began attacking random shoppers. Employees failed to alert patrons or attempt an evacuation despite detailed emergency plans.
At trial, the women argued that Nordstrom was negligent in that it failed to adequately protect customers despite opportunity and ability.
The fact is that very few states elevate the business-patron relationship to the point where a business must protect customers from third parties.
However, businesses do owe a duty of care to their patrons that requires warnings of dangerous conditions and the maintenance of general safety on the premises.
Nordstrom's employees were not required under negligence law to protect shoppers at all costs. Instead, they were required to get on the announcement system and warn shoppers that the stabber was in the store.
Moreover, they likely were required to attempt to evacuate as many shoppers as possible given the situation.
The real lesson here is that as a business owner, you and your employees need to take reasonable steps to protect customers even if events are out of your hands.