Learning the Hard Way
“Which one of you wants to die first?” asked bank robber Fred Anderson Jr., just before he shot tellers Marishia Scott and Heather Young. As a result of this assault, Young died and Scott, 28, was paralyzed from the neck down and is now confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
According to forensic alarm and security expert witness Jeffrey Zwirn, CPP, CFE, DABFET and president of IDS Research and Development Inc. of Teaneck, N.J., and Scott’s attorney, Bryan W. Crews of Crews and Bodiford in Orlando, Fla., this tragedy should have never happened. It occurred, they claim, because the United Southern Bank in Mount Dora, Fla., was an easy target due to a flawed security system installed in 1993 by Tampa, Fla.-based Foreline Security. Plaintiff counsel successfully convinced the six-person, all-male jury that the defendant was 50-percent liable. To date, the $26.9 million judgment against Foreline is the largest personal injury award in central Florida history.
Gunman Befriended Victims Before Shooting
Just before lunchtime on Saturday, March 20, 1999, Scott and Young were working alone when Anderson entered United Southern Bank. He had visited the bank the day before, posing as a college student interested in banking. When he came back that Saturday, both tellers were familiar with the man, so they were not alarmed.
The fact that he brought them doughnuts and orange juice further put Young and Scott at ease. After spending about 30 minutes in the bank, Anderson said he needed to go to his car to get his business card. When he returned, he was wielding a gun.
Anderson directed Scott and Young to go to the vault and give him all of the money. After fully complying with the gunman’s requests, both tellers were shot at close range by Anderson. The robber, who is now on death row, was apprehended, without a struggle, by the police as he was leaving the bank. He was carrying $70,000 in one hand and the bank’s VCR in the other.
Assailant Chose Bank Because of Security System Flaws
When the law offices of Crews and Bodiford first took this case, all either attorney knew was that they were dealing with a robbery that had ended tragically. As they investigated the circumstances of the crime however, they realized that they had an unusual case on their hands.
Video Recorder Located in Plain View of Public
Improper video recorder placement was probably the plaintiff’s most convincing argument. United Southern Bank’s VCR was located in the manager’s enclosed glass office, in plain view of the public. Additionally, the unit was not in a locked box or cabinet to deter theft. According to Zwirn, “The fact that the VCR was not in a protected area of the premises, in gross deviation of the manufacturer’s specifications [that it should be secured and out of public view], made this bank a soft target because the perpetrator knew that it would be very easy to either remove the tape or the video recorder.”
In a written letter to Security Sales & Integration, Foreline’s senior vice president, Rich Laplante, counters that the alarm company originally proposed that the VCR be located in a closet in the employee lunchroom. He states that “the bank elected the VCR be installed in the manager’s office. This election was specifically so the manager could view a blind area near the rear exit.”
Zwirn contends that the contract did not specify the VCR location, but that the CAD drawings provided by Foreline noted the “video monitor only” should be placed in the bank manager’s office. Additionally, there was no indication on the contract that United Southern Bank had signed an acknowledgement that it understood its security system had been compromised as a result of the changed recorder location. The plaintiff attorney convinced the jury that, regardless of what United Southern Bank wanted, Foreline was negligent for its failure to warn the bank of the known risk.
Victims Could Not Reach Panic Buttons
Another point successfully argued by the plaintiff was the alleged improper placement of the bank’s panic buttons. According to Zwirn, wireless panic buttons were installed at the customer service desks (out of reach on the opposite side of the office) and in the teller drawers (as money clips). The assailant suspected that these were in the drawers. Thus, he specifically instructed Scott and Young not to open the teller drawers, preventing access to the only panic devices in their proximity.
The system also did not include portable panic buttons to hang around the tellers’ necks as pendants. According to Zwirn, “While the defendant testified that these were not even manufactured in 1993, to be added onto the system in some format, what we learned was that those buttons were manufactured prior to 1993 and Foreline failed to offer them.”
Additionally, Scott informed Zwirn that if she had been able to get to the panic button, she would have pressed it. Zwirn concludes that, “based on the quick police response, which was less than one minute when someone heard gunshots, we believe that, had she been able to reach the panic button, the police would have been able to intercept Anderson and this wouldn’t have occurred.”
Foreline asserts that it did offer more panic devices, but the bank declined to purchase the additional products. Zwirn contends that this is in direct contradiction to the evidence.
He testified that the defendant misrepresented to the bank the quality and nature of the security system it was installing and that Foreline did not install the system in accordance with its own contract specifications or recognized industry standards.
UL, Manufacturer Standards Were Not Followed
The plaintiff successfully argued that Foreline represented it was going to install a UL holdup and burglary system. The system installed, however, was neither certified nor in compliance with UL standards.
Zwirn determined that it violated UL 636 (the standard for holdup units and systems) and UL 681 (the standard for installation and classification of mercantile and bank burglar alarm systems). Some examples of these violations include the holdup equipment that was interconnected to the master control panel (the panel was not UL listed) as well as inadequate and inaccessible placement of the panic buttons.
Zwirn also concluded in his investigation that the alarm company was in violation of chapter 489.501 of the Florida statute. This statute outlines the qualifications of the supervisor who is ultimately responsible for a security system’s installation.
His conclusion was supported by the testimony of Foreline’s qualifier and system salesman that he believed it could have been UL certified. The brother of the salesman, who also worked for Foreline, testified that the company should not have used this language in the contract. (It should be noted that in May 2001, Foreline was sold and is under new management, headed by Rich Laplante.)
Florida Statute Mandates Defendant Pay Entire Award
After both sides presented their arguments, the jury found Foreline and the bank each to be 50-percent liable. The alarm company was determined to be guilty of an intentional tort because it misrepresented the nature and quality of the system and represented that the system was UL certifiable when it actually was not. Because of this and because Scott was barred from suing United Southern Bank under the state’s workers compensation immunity laws, Florida’s joint and several statute mandated that Foreline pay 100 percent of the $26.9 million judgment, despite it being only 50-percent liable. (Since 1999 when the crime was committed, Florida’s joint and several statute has been modified.) The Scott v. Foreline judgment is currently under appeal.
Expert Witness Suggests 4 Ways to Avoid this Type of Tragedy
Zwirn has several recommendations as to<
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