Most of the counts brought by John Crawford III’s parents against Walmart in a civil lawsuit survived summary judgment and will proceed to trial, a federal judge ruled today.
Crawford, 22, of Fairfield, was shot twice and killed Aug. 5 2014, by a Beavercreek police officer in that city’s Walmart. The trial had been scheduled to begin next week, but Beavercreek appealed and the trial was delayed until Oct. 28.
Crawford was holding a Crosman MK-177 BB/pellet rifle he found unpackaged on a store shelf. A lone 911 caller, Ronald Ritchie, told dispatchers a black man was holding a rifle, appeared to be loading it and waving it near people, including children.
Beavercreek officer Sean Williams and Sgt. David Darkow responded to Walmart, and Williams fired twice within seconds of seeing Crawford after officers said they shouted out commands. Crawford was on his cell phone talking to the mother of his two children.
U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice ruled that the wrongful death count against Walmart be dismissed. But the judge also ruled in a 38-page opinion filed today that trial against Walmart will continue on claims of negligence, premises liability, survivorship and loss of consortium.
“In the court’s view, based on the evidence presented, a reasonable jury could find that Wal-Mart breached its duty to take reasonable precautions to protect its customers from foreseeable dangers,” Rice wrote. “Although Wal-Mart was not required by law to secure the MK-177 pellet rifles, a reasonable jury could find that it should have done so.”
Rice also found it reasonable that a jury could rule Walmart had a duty to return the item to its package and that Walmart took too much time to warn Crawford that carrying such an item was dangerous after four employees knew about it.
The judge also ruled a reasonable jury could find negligence on Walmart’s part because it knew the MK-177 could be confused with an AR-15 style firearm regardless of the warning on the box or Ohio’s open-carry laws.
Rice noted that the MK-177 box, which was redesigned to take out staples and be easy to open, includes a warning that states, “DO NOT BRANDISH OR DISPLAY THIS AIRGUN IN PUBLIC - IT MAY CONFUSE PEOPLE AND MAY BE A CRIME. POLICE AND OTHERS MAY THINK IT IS A FIREARM.”
Rice also wrote that a Walmart employee saw Crawford and was concerned that someone may mistake the pellet rifle for a real firearm. That employee called another worker for management to be notified so they could locate Crawford.
Rice wrote that two Walmart managers walked together but did not find him. One manager testified that because she did not believe that Crawford posed any immediate danger, she did not treat this as an urgent situation.
Rice cited case law that as a “business invitee,” Crawford was owed by Walmart a duty to use care not to injure him by negligent activities; a duty to warn him of latent dangers known; and a duty to inspect the premises to discover dangerous conditions and take reasonable precautions to protect him from foreseeable dangers.
Rice wrote that in its motion for summary judgment, Walmart argued that because plaintiffs contend Williams’ conduct was “criminal in nature, plaintiffs must be held to a higher standard to prove Walmart had a duty to protect Crawford from the criminal act of a third party.
Rice wrote that Walmart’s own retail expert admitted it had a duty to do a risk assessment of pellet rifles and take action to protect customers and that the MK-177 looks like a real rifle.
The expert “found that Wal-Mart did conduct such an assessment and concluded that there was no risk to displaying an unsecured pellet rifle on the shelf,” Rice wrote, quoting testimony.
Walmart argued it was not foreseeable that in an open-carry state a police officer would shoot and kill a customer carrying a pellet rifle and that a 911 caller would falsely report Crawford was loading the rifle and pointing it at people, Rice wrote.
Rice also wrote that two months before Crawford was shot, Walmart got an email from a Walmart customer in Minnesota who was concerned about “a very big safety issue” about unsecured display of air rifles and ammunition.
The judge recounted the email that alleged two young boys loaded an air rifle and pointed it the customer. The man who emailed asked that air rifles be secured in the same manner as real firearms.
Rice ruled that Walmart had a duty “to take reasonable precautions to protect its business invitees from the dangers associated with the unsecured display of MK-177 pellet rifles.”
Rice sustained Walmart’s request for summary judgment for a wrongful death because “although Wal-Mart’s alleged negligence may have created the situation that led to Crawford’s death, Wal-Mart’s alleged ‘provocation’ is simply too attenuated to support a wrongful death claim under Ohio law.”
A Greene County special grand jury in 2014 cleared Williams of any criminal charges. A federal civil right investigation against Beavercreek police was closed in 2017 when it was determined they did not have enough evidence to go forward.
Shopper Angela Williams died of a heart condition after she tried to run out of the Walmart that night after the officer’s shots. Her family did not take any legal action.
Attorneys for Crawford’s family and Walmart will be contacted for comment. We will update this story if and when they respond.