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Howard v. R.M. Smith Investments, L.P.

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

February 28, 2017

ERIN HOWARD APPELLANT
v.
R.M. SMITH INVESTMENTS, L.P. APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/06/2015

         HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. WILLIAM A. GOWAN JR. TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: CRYSTAL WISE MARTIN SUZANNE KEYS.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: JAMIE D. TRAVIS TUJUANA S. MCGEE.

          BEFORE IRVING, P.J., ISHEE, FAIR AND WILSON, JJ.

          ISHEE, J.

         ¶1. On June 5, 2013, while working as a manager at Dollar General, Erin Howard was kidnapped and assaulted at gunpoint by Justin Dennis. Dennis later pleaded guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to fourteen years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Erin Howard filed a negligence-based premises-liability claim against R.M. Smith Investments L.P., the owner of the property where the Dollar General was located. After proceeding with discovery, on October 30, 2014, R.M. Smith filed its initial motion for summary judgment. The motion was denied, but renewed again on July 31, 2015. The Hinds County Circuit Court granted the renewed motion for summary judgment in favor of R.M. Smith, and Howard now appeals. Finding no error, we affirm.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         ¶2. Howard began working as a manager at the Dollar General located on Capitol Street in downtown Jackson approximately three years before the kidnapping incident occurred. R.M. Smith leased the property to Dolgencorp LLC, the owners of the Dollar General franchise. Howard worked for Dollar General, and was in no way employed by R.M. Smith. Prior to the incident, there had only been two instances of violence on the premises.[1] While the surrounding neighborhood experienced frequent criminal activity, the Dollar General location was relatively unscathed.

         ¶3. A few months prior to the kidnapping incident, Howard and Dennis had two volatile encounters in which Dennis became belligerent, and cursed at and threatened Howard. On both occasions, Howard subsequently banned Dennis from the store until further notice. Dennis generally abided by Howard's ban. Howard never informed police, R.M. Smith, Dolgencorp, or any other authoritative figure of her prior encounters with Dennis.

         ¶4. On or about June 3, 2013, Howard was preparing the store and the employees for supervisory visits. However, during her preparation, the store telephone rang repeatedly. Howard answered the phone calls, but the caller hung up each time. She used the store's caller-ID feature to obtain the caller's phone number, and she used her personal cell phone to text the caller. Howard asked the caller if there was "anything or anyone at Dollar General can assist with [sic]." The caller responded crudely, and the pair exchanged a series of "heated" messages that insinuated threats of violence against the other. The caller ended the conversation with an ominous text telling Howard that they would "see [her] later" that day. Howard maintains that she was unaware that the caller was in fact Justin Dennis, and that she did not realize who the caller was until Dennis kidnapped her. Again, Howard did not inform anyone of this encounter.

         ¶5. Approximately thirty minutes after the last heated text message was exchanged, Howard went outside into the parking lot of the store. As seen on the indoor security video footage, one minute later, Howard ran back into the store, trailed by Dennis, who was carrying a handgun. Dennis fired one shot in the store and brought Howard back outside and loaded her into his vehicle. Howard remained with Dennis for roughly six hours before police officers successfully negotiated her freedom. There were no security guards employed by R.M. Smith for the Dollar General location, nor were any working security cameras facing the parking lot where a large part of the incident occurred.

         ¶6. R.M. Smith renewed its initial motion for summary judgment, which was granted on October 30, 2015. Howard appealed the circuit court's decision and, while Howard asserts four issues in her brief, all of the issues relate to the ...


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