A number of years ago, I defended an Elks lodge on a personal injury suit filed by a woman attending a Christmas party thrown by individuals who had rented the hall from the Elks. The insurance company for the lodge had gone into receivership and thus did not provide the lodge with a defense or an agreement to pay the claim. The hall renters did not have insurance and could not even be found to be served with process.
The woman had fallen and broken her leg after a party guest had caused a stampede down a staircase exiting the building, by firing a gun into the air. Following discovery, depositions and a medical exam of the plaintiff, we sought to dismiss the case prior to trial on the basis that it was not foreseeable that a party guest would carry and fire a gun during the Christmas party. Fortunately, the court agreed and dismissed the case, thus eliminating any possibility that the Elks lodge would be exposed to a large jury award based on the plaintiff’s very serious injuries. There was at the time no New Jersey case precedent with similar facts to rely upon.
In a similar, more recent case, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that a college fraternity was not liable to a party guest who was shot in the course of interceding in an argument. As with my case, alcohol was a factor, and the gunman was unknown and could not be located. As with my case, the shooter did not have any affiliation with the fraternity. The court considered that there was no evidence showing that it was reasonably foreseeable that the plaintiff would have been shot by a third party while attending the fraternity event, and that there was no prior pattern of criminal conduct at the fraternity house or prior incident involving the shooter that would have given the defendants any forewarning of this shooting incident. The court also noted that there was no connection between the shooting and the alcohol, and that it was not foreseeable that the plaintiff would intercede.
When you are faced with unusual facts and circumstances in a high stakes case, it is key to rely on experienced counsel to find a way to win.