Fan on fan violence was at the root of a lawsuit brought by Enrique Romero against the Los Angeles Rams (“Rams”); and against the Rams’ private security contractor, Contemporary Services Corporation (“CSC”). In Romero v. L. A. Rams, No. B310152 (Cal. Ct. App. Apr. 27, 2023). Romero alleged causes of action for negligence, premises liability and related torts after Romero was injured in an altercation with another fan during a Rams football game at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
In granting defendants’ motions for summary judgment, the trial court ruled that, even if defendants had a duty to protect plaintiffs and had failed to take the necessary steps outlined in plaintiffs’ complaint, these failures did not establish causation for Romero's injuries. On appeal, the court affirmed.
Romero and his family were attending a Rams football game at the Los Angeles Coliseum when they decided to leave their assigned seats and enter “Family Section” area of the stadium where many of the Rams' family members sit. This section is closer to the field and the Romeros wanted to get close to the Rams players. Soon after the Romeros entered the Family Section, a CSC security supervisor was informed by a Rams employee that there was an issue. The supervisor went to the Family Section and observed that there was overcrowding in the aisles. He asked those in the aisles to return to their seats. A verbal confrontation ensued between Romero and some of the Rams' family members. The supervisor positioned himself between Romero and the Rams’ family members. The supervisor told Romero that he needed to escort the Rams’ family members out of the section.
As Romero and one of his daughters began to move up the aisle, some of the Rams’ family members also began to move in that direction. The verbal attacks continued as the parties moved up the aisle. Romero eventually stopped and stepped out of the aisle to let some of the Rams’ family member pass. Romero waved goodbye to one of the female Rams’ family members and called her a name. The woman then ran into the row where Romero was standing and slapped him. The supervisor attempted to get in between the two. The supervisor was then hit in the back of the head and knocked to the ground for 5-7 seconds. When the supervisor stood up, he saw that Romero had a large cut over his eye. Romero’s injury was later sutured, and he alleged that he needed to have a titanium plate implanted near his eye socket to prevent further damage to his eye.
The basis of the lower court's grant of summary judgment was that the plaintiffs failed to show causation. "Causation is ordinarily a question of fact which cannot be resolved by summary judgment. However, causation may be decided as a question of law if under the undisputed facts, there is no room for a reasonable difference of opinion." Nichols v. Keller (1993) 15 Cal.App.4th 1672, 1687.
Romero argued that defendants had a duty to protect him from physical attack by third parties when he was present in their facility. He alleged that CSC was negligent in not employing more security personnel at the event, and in providing inadequate training and equipment.
In its defense, CSC argued that, even if the additional security personnel and training urged by Romero had been employed, such measures would not have prevented the attack. CSC also contended that it had no duty to provide additional security personnel in the Family Section. because no prior incidents had occurred in that section warranting such a shift in resources.
Romero responded by stating that the overcrowding in the Family Section contributed to the incident and made security issues in that section foreseeable. Romero contended that the Rams and CSC should have:
- Provided enough LAPD officers to maintain order, deter violent fights among the massive crows of attendees, ensure the safety of attendees, and discourage overconsumption of alcohol.
- Implemented adequate security measures.
- Ensured that security personnel in the seating area were aware of LAPD and security deployments.
- Ensured that CSC staff members could directly communicate with LAPD and/or security.
- Provided additional security personnel to the Family Section in light of prior complaints.
- Authorized staff members in the seating area to enforce the Fan Code of Conduct, including ejection of fans.
- Provided radios to CSC employees deployed in the lower bowl.
- Informed CSC employees deployed in the area about LAPD and security deployments.
- Timely called LAPD and/or security to the verbal altercation involving Mr. Romero; and
- Kept Mr. Romero and his assailants physically separated until LAPD and/or security arrived on scene.
For the purposes of the summary judgment, the trial court assumed the existence of a duty, and subsequent breach of said duty by the defendants. However, the trial court determined that Romero's case failed on the issue of causation. It concluded that none of the alleged breaches were a substantial factor in causing Romero's injuries. The court could not find that the ameliorative measures suggested by plaintiff made it more probable than not that Romero's injuries would have been prevented.
Romero attempted to argue that the trial court applied the incorrect standard in analyzing causation. He argued that the substantial factor test should be interpreted broadly, "requiring only that the contribution of the individual cause be more than negligible or theoretical." Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 978. "A very minor force that does cause harm is a substantial factor." Bockrath v. 31 Aldrich Chemical Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 71, 79.
The trial court did not agree. It stated that the case law provided by Romero involved products liability cases and the manufacturing of defective products. These type of cases employ a different scope of analysis that is not relevant to assault cases. In fact, the California Supreme Court framed the applicable analysis as "[t]he plaintiff must introduce evidence which affords a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it is “more likely than not” that the conduct of the defendant was a cause in fact of the result. A mere possibility of such causation is not enough, and when the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to direct a verdict for the defendant. " Ortega v. Kmart Corp. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 1200, 1205-1206. As such, plaintiffs in this case had to prove, "it was more probable than not that additional security precautions would have prevented the attack." Saelzler v. Advance Group 400 (2001) 25 Cal.4th 763, 776.
Romero also claimed that CSC staff should have been trained to enforce the Fan Code of Conduct including ejecting fans when necessary. The appellate court agreed with the trial court's finding that, "the bare claim that more security personnel could have prevented a criminal attack shows only abstract negligence." (Saelzler, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 773.) Instead, the court required "direct or circumstantial evidence showing that the assailant took advantage of the defendant's lapse or omission in the course of committing his attack, and that omission was a substantial factor in causing the injury." Id. at 779. This is admittedly a difficult threshold for Romero to meet because "no one can reasonably contend that even a significant increase in police personnel will prevent all crime or any particular crime." Noble v. Los Angeles Dodgers, Inc. (1985) 168 Cal. App.3d 912, 918. The court acknowledged that crimes can occur no matter the number of security personnel present at a location.
Romero contends that because the security in the Family Section did not have the authority to eject fans, a situation that did not need to escalate beyond a verbal altercation morphed into a physical assault. This argument is not supported by the facts as they show that the security present was in the process of removing Romero along with the family members he was in a shouting match with when the physical assault occurred. Although the parties at issue were not formally "ejected" they were asked to move away from the location in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Thus, the defendants were doing exactly what Romero claimed they failed to do. Therefore, the court reasoned that the defendants did not cause Romero's harm by their action or omission in this scenario.
Romero also asserted that the defendants should have taken measures to keep Romero and his assailants physically separated. The facts show that the security who reported to the Family Section did in fact physically stand between the arguing parties. He also contends that escorting the family members directly past him "within arm's reach" was a failure on the part of security to effectively promote physical separation. The facts also do not support this contention, as Romero himself testified that he had moved four to five seats inward from the aisle, to allow the Rams’ family members to pass. Further, the record reflected that the female who struck Romero had to turn, leave the aisle and enter the row where Romero was standing. Therefore, this contention also failed to demonstrate that security's actions that day were a substantial factor in causing Romero's injuries.
Finally, Romero contended that if the defendants had called LAPD and security more quickly regarding the overcrowding in the Family Section, the injuries may have been prevented. In reality, however, even if CSC had called the LAPD or security at the second it knew there was overcrowding in the Family Section, the response time (based on records of average response times) still would not have been quick enough to prevent the assault. Similarly, evidence that the CSC staff could not communicate directly with LAPD or security via radio did support Romero's negligence contentions, but it was not sufficient evidence for the court to conclude that this type of enhanced communication would have provided a different result for Romero. It stated that, "Such communications could only reduce the unknown time it took for a request to travel from a CSC employee to the CSC command center." This alone was insufficient to create a triable issue of fact.
The lesson here is that plaintiff’s counsel hoping to score touchdowns should never overlook causation as a critical component of the their clients’ burden of proof, especially in premises liability and inadequate security cases.