The Case of the Dangerous Starbucks Tip Jar
By David Krisch
Roger Kreutz was waiting in line at Starbucks when he saw nineteen-year-old Aaron Poisson steal the Starbucks tip jar and run. Mr. Kreutz decided to chase down the thief and, after a physical altercation outside the store, the thief got into his car and ran over Mr. Kreutz, who, as a result, died from head injuries. Curiously, Mr. Kreutz’s family is suing Starbucks for wrongful death, alleging that Starbucks should have known that leaving tip jars within plain view and easy reach of patrons invited criminal behavior; as a result of this foreseeable criminal behavior, they claim, Mr. Kreutz was killed. The Kreutzes further allege that Starbucks failed to exercise reasonable care in providing security or otherwise guard against the known danger.
HuffPo outlined these facts but didn’t examine the likelihood of success for the Kreutz estate. We will.
According to Missouri law, there is no duty to protect customers from criminal acts of unknown third persons, but Missouri courts have recognized two exceptions.
Exception 1: Danger and Notice A business has a duty to protect customers when a person is on the premises who is known to be violent, or is acting in way that signals danger, and sufficient time exists to prevent injury.
This exception probably does not apply to the Kreutz case because there seems to be no evidence that Starbucks knew the thief was dangerous, or that he was conducting himself suspiciously before he stole the tip jar and bolted out the door. If the Kreutzes can establish that, after the theft, the altercation outside of the store was long or heated enough that Starbucks employees should have called the police, and that the police could have arrived in time to prevent Mr. Kreutz’s death, Starbucks could possibly be liable under this exception. But this would be extremely difficult to prove, and is a highly unlikely outcome.
Exception 2: Foreseeability of Harm A business has a duty to protect customers when there is a foreseeable likelihood that the acts or omissions of a business may cause harm or injury, or a dangerous condition exists on the property that may cause harm or injury. Under this exception, the Kreutzes will argue that the tip jar’s placement, in plain view and reach of customers, resulted in foreseeable harm or injuries. But it is still not foreseeable that a customer would die from attempting to halt another customer’s theft of a tip jar. And it is unlikely that the Kreutzes will be able to gather employee testimony or Starbucks documents noting a pattern of tip jar thefts.
Exceptions Did Not Apply in a Factually Similar Case
In 1987, the Eastern District of Missouri held that, in a case in which a patron was killed by a car bomb in a business owners’ parking garage, a wrongful death claim against the business owner did not fall within either of the aforementioned exceptions because: (1) there was insufficient time to put the business on notice of the assailant’s violent propensities, and to prevent the attack; and (2) prior crimes on the premises were not similar in nature and so did not put the owner on notice. Likewise, there seems to have been inadequate time for Starbucks to be on notice that the thief would steal from the tip jar and be so unstable as to run someone over. And to the best of our knowledge, any past crimes at this Starbucks did not resemble this one.
A 2000 Missouri case found that a business was not liable for a third party’s injury because the injury had occurred shortly after the business security personnel became aware of the danger. Because of the speedy nature of the crime at Starbucks (grabbing the contents of the tip jar and running out the door), even if Starbucks had a security guard in the store, it is likely that the guard would not have been able to protect Mr. Kreutz from harm during the ensuing altercation. If it can be established that a long struggle ensued in the parking lot, a jury could indeed find that security could have followed the thief outside and prevented the death of the customer. But the facts do not support this scenario.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for wrongful death in Missouri is three years. Mr. Kreutz died on March 5, 2008. The lawsuit was filed on March 7, 2011. This poses a statute of limitations problem, which would seem to add to the unlikelihood of this being a successful lawsuit.
Finally, and sadly, we note the total amount in the Starbucks tip jar that cost Mr. Kreutz his life: Five dollars.