Court Finds Kidnapping Victim Provoked Attacker

JACKSON, Miss. (CN) – A Mississippi Dollar General is not liable for a kidnapped manager’s injuries because she provoked her attacker and created the dangerous situation herself, a state appeals court ruled.

Justin Dennis pleaded guilty to kidnapping Erin Howard at gunpoint in 2013 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Dennis, 25, had been banned from the downtown Jackson store that Howard managed for threatening her before he returned on June 5, 2013, fired a single shot in the store and held Howard for roughly six hours until police successfully negotiated her freedom.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals ruled last week that the Dollar General location’s owners, R.M. Smith Investments, owned no duty to its kidnapped manager because she initiated contact with her attacker, provoked him through text messages, and failed to provide notice to anyone that Dennis may arrive at the store.

The two had exchanged what the appeals court described as “heated” text messages hours before the kidnapping, after Dennis repeatedly called the store but hung up when Howard answered.

Howard used the store’s caller-ID feature to obtain the caller’s number, and used her personal cellphone to send him text messages, court records show. She says she was not aware that the caller was Dennis and the pair exchanged threats of violence against each other, according to the eight-page ruling.

“Dennis testified that upon receiving the text messages, he was extremely angry and that Howard was his only target that day,” Judge David M. Ishee wrote in the February 28 ruling. “Howard was an independent intervening cause that was unforeseeable to R.M. Smith and, thus severed any liabilities R.M. Smith might have regarding Howard’s injuries.”

The appeals court found that Howard never informed her employer of her previous encounters with Dennis, or of the text-message conversation on the day of her kidnapping.

The ruling affirms a Hinds County judge’s 2015 decision to toss the negligence-based premises liability case “because she created the dangerous situation herself.”

“Howard failed to establish the essential element of proximate cause, and the circuit court correctly granted R.M. Smith’s motion for summary judgment,” Ishee wrote.

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