Memphis PHA May Be Liable for Resident's Wrongful Death
Facts: A resident of a housing site owned and operated by the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) was fatally shot at the site by another resident.
On the day of the shooting, a security guard for a company under contract with the MHA asked a resident to stop cursing and using bad language. When the security guard briefly left his station, the resident went back to his unit, apparently for the purpose of getting a rifle. After the security guard returned, the resident returned and began shooting at him. A resident who was in the manager's office was struck and killed by one of the shots.
The victim's surviving children sued the City of Memphis and the MHA for the wrongful death of the resident as a result of negligence, and for breach of the resident's lease agreement with the MHA.
The children alleged that the MHA didn't properly screen the shooter before leasing the unit to him; failed to enforce internal admissions and occupancy policies with regard to the shooter; allowed the shooter to possess a rifle; and didn't properly assess an allegedly known threat or risk to the other residents of the site. Finally, the children claimed that the MHA had breached its lease agreement with the victim by failing to keep or maintain a safe environment at the site.
The trial court ruled that neither the MHA's internal policies nor the contents of the shooter's criminal background check created any duty to the victim under these circumstances. Moreover, after observing that a policy excluding those with prior records would result in a “massive underclass of ex-convicts homeless due to an inability to find housing,” the trial court rejected the children's argument that the MHA had a duty to conduct a criminal background check on applicants. Finally, the trial court held that the children were not entitled to recover damages as third-party beneficiaries for breach of the terms of the lease agreement between the MHA and the resident.
The children appealed.
Decision: The appeals court reversed the trial court's decision.
Reasoning: The trial court erred in not allowing the case to proceed, the appeals court concluded. There was ample evidence that the MHA may have been negligent in terms of at least one or more of the allegations, the court reasoned. Specifically, the trial court should have taken into account that the shooter had stabbed a local resident several years earlier. In addition, the court noted, the shooter may have had a history of abusing drugs.
- Cheryl Brown Giggers v. Memphis Housing Authority, December 2010