Senate advances bill to protect property owners from lawsuits after two-hour debate

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How much, if any, liability should business owners incur for crimes committed by third parties on their property is at the center of debate on legislation that is being considered this session.

On Thursday, the Senate passed legislation by a 32-17 margin that opponents said would relieve property owners or businesses of any liability even if the business owner failed to take precautions, such as having adequate lighting or security personnel to protect customers.

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, a proponent of legislation limiting liability for crimes committed by third parties says it’s only fair that the person committing the crime bear some of the fault. 

Proponents of the legislation say the proposal primarily puts into law how the courts already are handling civil lawsuits involving crimes committed by third parties against customers at businesses.

What is at issue is whether a business bears any responsibility in a civil lawsuit should someone come onto the property and commit a crime, such as an assault or rape in the parking lot. Under current law, as interpreted by the state’s court system, the businesses do bear some responsibility. Proponents say the legislation being considered this session would not change that.

But proponents of the measure said the bills, one originating in each chamber, do try to give business owners some relief from the costly lawsuits.

“We’re one of two states that do not allow juries to apportion fault,” said Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, who is in the real estate business. Harkins said it is only fair that the person committing the crime bear some of the fault.

But those who saw fault with the legislation on the Senate floor included conservative Republicans, such as Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, and Judiciary A Chair Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg.

Both argued that the bill should be advanced through the legislative process, but that safeguards be put in the legislation to ensure it could not go straight to the governor for his signature until some changes are made to the bill.

Wiggins argued that the way the bill is currently written businesses would face no liability.

He cited a 2008 crime he prosecuted as an assistant district attorney in Jackson County where a man was killed at a gas station. He said the fact there was not proper lighting at the gas station made it easier for the crime to be committed.

He said if the bill was law at the time of the crime family members “could not have been compensated for the loss of the grandfather,” who was murdered at the gas station.

Wiggins said he had an A rating from business groups that supported the bill, but that he could not support it without additional work.

In addition, he and others cited language in the bill saying a business would not face responsibility unless someone had been convicted of a felony within the past three years on the property.

Sens. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, and Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, and others pointed out that crimes could be committed on the property, such as rape, where there was never a conviction. Based on that there would be no compulsion for the business to provide security.

“The free market will take over,” said Sen. Jennifer Brannon, R-Philadelphia. “If a business does not have good lightning and provide a safe environment, if will lose customers and not be open too long.”

The legislation hearkens back to the 2000s when there were multiple, bitter battles in the Mississippi Legislature between business interests and trial attorneys – battles where business groups ultimately prevailed.

“This is a shot at the trial attorneys,” said Wiggins during debate on the Senate floor.

Many members alluded to the fact that as the bill was discussed multiple real estate agents from throughout the state were in the Senate gallery.

Debate on the bill Thursday lasted for about two hours but was civil. During debate on the House bill earlier in the week in the Judiciary A Committee, Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon refused to recognize Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, to speak against the bill, instead calling for a vote on the measure while Blackmon was asking to be recognized.