Lessons in Liability
Print Issue: March 2017
This article has been updated. Following are comments from Richard Wyckoff, President & CEO, U.S Security Associates, Inc.
U.S. Security Associates was disappointed to read the article titled "Lessons in Liability" in the March issue of Security Management magazine. The article contained factual mistakes, omitted key facts, and sensationalized the tragedy of an incident that led to two deaths.
The events of September 9, 2010, were unquestionably tragic. In the security industry, we all pray that an unpreventable incident does not occur on our watch, and we all take great measures to reduce the likelihood and risk of an active shooter. Not even the full force of the federal government and local authorities, working together, can prevent these senseless acts of violence.
Our two officers on post at the Kraft client site were well trained, having passed background screening and onboarding employment verification. But they were unarmed and could not defend against an attacker with a .357 Magnum handgun, which was pointed at both of their bodies. Neither guard “ran away.” Instead, they took cover and each called 911 as soon as possible. Their quick actions may have prevented further loss of life.
Each officer independently adjudged not to use the general announcement system. Again, this was a split-second decision that may have prevented further loss of life; causing a panic in the manufacturing facility might have sent more employees into the path of the murderer. Indeed, Yvonne Hiller fired her weapon at other Kraft employees as she transited the facility.
All of this happened in less than five minutes. Emergency response showed up nine minutes after Hiller re-entered the facility, armed and dangerous. It is hard to understand what other actions our guards could have taken to prevent this tragedy.
And the primary lesson to take away from this tragedy is not one of liability. Certainly a Monday morning quarterback’s view is improper; those quoted in the article neither attended the trial nor contacted the company for the details and suppositions made about the incident.
We believe that the real lessons are ones of leadership and loyalty. U.S. Security Associates took this incident very seriously and pivoted to lead the industry in response to the active shooter problem. The company has added Active Shooter Training to its basic, required training for new employees and trained all existing employees as well. The company also developed Security Stars, an officer professionalism and career development training course above and beyond the minimum Security Officer Basic Training. We recruited Harold Underdown, a Navy Seal Master Chief with 30 years of Naval Service, to join the company as the Senior Vice President of Officer Development. Harold has spearheaded our Security Stars initiative and visits our sites nationwide to lead this unique and forward looking program.
We also know that training programs alone do not prevent future incidents. The company showed that loyalty is part of our core values. We remained on site at Kraft and continued to provide services to the facility until it was shut down in a corporate reorganization. We stood by Kraft at trial, and our founding CEO and Chairman of the Board attended the trial as the company representative. Most tellingly, Kraft recently selected U.S. Security Associates as its single-source security provider nationwide. This loyalty and commitment to excellence is part of the “corporate heartbeat”. And it is this corporate heartbeat that enables U.S. Security Associates to see lessons in leadership where others see lessons in liability.
Security Management responds:
The reporting in the article was based on the written opinion of a state district court. We regret that we were unable to incorporate U.S. Security's comments into the original article.
Yvonne Hiller was not having a good day. On September 9, 2010, Hiller had a quarrel with her coworkers—Tanya Renee Wilson, LaTonya Brown, and Bryant Dalton—at the Kraft Foods plant in Northeast Philadelphia where she had worked for 15 years. At a union stewards and supervisors meeting that evening, a decision was made. She was suspended and had to vacate the facility immediately.
Kraft had contracted U.S. Security Associates, a private-sector firm, to provide security for the plant, and U.S. Security Site Supervisor Damon Harris was called to escort Hiller to her vehicle and ensure that she left the property.
However, Harris did not walk Hiller to her car. He left her at the guard booth at the security gate at the entrance to the plant and allowed Hiller to walk to her vehicle, alone. But Hiller did not drive away.
Instead, she retrieved a firearm from her car and drove back to the security gate where she pointed her gun at U.S. Security Officer Marc Bentley, who was inside the guard booth, and demanded to be allowed back into the plant.
When Bentley did not open the gate, Hiller drove through it. Bentley then paced back and forth inside the guard booth, while his supervisor—Harris—ran away. Both security officers called 911 after several minutes of panic and confusion, but they failed to alert anyone else in the plant that Hiller was inside, and that she was armed.
Hiller made her way through the plant to where the union meeting had taken place earlier that evening, opened fire, and shot Wilson, Brown, and Dalton. Wilson and Brown were killed, but Dalton survived the attack.
Local law enforcement responded to the scene, taking Hiller into custody. She was eventually convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. She is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
The estates of Wilson and Brown filed a civil suit against U.S. Security and Hiller in 2015, alleging that the security company was guilty of negligence for failing to protect the people at the plant during the shooting and for failing to warn employees that Hiller was in the plant, armed with a gun.
The First Judicial District Court of Pennsylvania agreed with them, granting the estates more than $46.5 million in damages—$8.02 million in compensatory damages and $38.5 million in punitive damages.
“The verdict is an important message to U.S. Security that their guards can’t simply run away in the middle of a crisis,” said Shanin Specter of Kline & Specter, P.C., which represented the Wilson and Brown families in the civil suit, in an interview with Philadelphia’s NBC local affiliate. U.S. Security did not return requests for comment on this article.
Kraft had contracted with U.S. Security and set forth the service agreement in written documents, outlining the security officers’ guide and post orders.
The service agreement explained that U.S. Security personnel would have administrative and operations experience in security services at a level adequate to the scope of work and would be “responsible for maintaining high standards of performance, personal appearance, and conduct,” according to court documents.
Personnel would be responsible for duties such as access control; escort services; incident reports; in-depth knowledge of facility-specific requirements, expectations, and emergency procedures; patrol service duties; alarm response; emergency and accident response; and security gate control.
The service agreement also outlined what was expected of security personnel in response to an emergency at the Kraft plant in Philadelphia. The nine-step procedure included remaining calm if the officer was witness to a threatening situation, contacting a Kraft representative immediately, calling 911 if the threat was immediate, being prepared to assist if the situation became confrontational, and noting all facts about the incident in the security log.
This is why it is critical for contract security providers and their clients to draft and review policies related to security officer duties and emergency response.
“Any plans, procedures, and policies that you had in place are going to be front and center when a tragedy like the Kraft case happens—or even something far less tragic,” says Eddie Sorrells, CPP, PCI, PSP, chief operating officer and general counsel for DSI Security Services, a contract security provider based in Dothan, Alabama..
For contract security providers, the case illustrates the importance of reviewing background screening and training processes for security guards. One criticism in the U.S. Security case, according to court documents, was that Bentley—a relatively new security officer—was not adequately trained to know how to use the available technology to communicate that Hiller had reentered the plant with a gun.
“One of the most important lessons learned from this case is how critical training is for the security officer,” Sorrells explains. “That’s not a suggestion that U.S. Security didn’t have that; it just reinforces the need to have real policies and procedures that can be…exercised and trained on.”
“I’m fond of saying that corporations are not hiring a staffing agency; they’re hopefully hiring security experts who can come in and advise them on what is needed in terms of emergency communications, training, and internal education for your employees,” Sorrells adds.
“We have to make sure that training is there to hopefully prevent these things from happening; and even if all those efforts fail, once someone does show up with a weapon, we need to have procedures in place to make sure emergency notifications are sent out,” Sorrells says.
Around 10:09 a.m. on September 8, 2013, Yale University doctoral student Annie Le swiped her security card and entered the research lab on Yale’s campus where she conducted experiments into enzymes that could have implications for cancer, diabetes, and muscular dystrophy treatments.
Later that day, a fire alarm went off in the lab, requiring everyone to evacuate the facility. But Le did not leave. And Yale University did not search the building to locate her. Eventually, when Le did not come home that night, her roommate called the authorities at Yale to report her missing.
However, authorities did not begin looking for Le until the following morning. They would not find her until five days later—on the day she was scheduled to be married—when they discovered her body stuffed into a wall in the basement of the lab facility.
Authorities would later determine that fellow laboratory technician Raymond J. Clark III had brutally assaulted and strangled Le on September 8. He pleaded guilty to her murder and is currently serving a 44-year prison sentence.
Following his sentencing, Le’s family filed suit against Yale, alleging that it was negligent and failed to use reasonable care by hiring Clark for a position that allowed him unsupervised access to students and staff; by retaining Clark in that position; by failing to adequately supervise and monitor Clark’s activities; and by permitting Clark to work alone in remote areas of the building with Le and others.
The family also claimed that Yale was negligent for failing to inform and warn Le about the potential threat Clark posed; failing to take “reasonable steps” to provide a safe and secure environment for Le to work at the facility; failing to maintain a properly qualified and trained security staff at the lab; failing to respond to a fire alarm that sounded the same day Le was murdered; fostering an atmosphere of tolerance of sexual harassment and sexual assaults that emboldened Clark; failing to investigate Le’s unexplained disappearance; and failing to detect, prevent, or intervene in Clark’s attack and murder of Le.
Yale denied the allegations, ABC News reported. “Yale had no information indicating that Raymond Clark was capable of committing this terrible crime, and no reasonable security measures could have prevented his unforeseeable act,” the university said. Yale later agreed to pay the Le family $3 million to settle the suit in 2016, according to the Associated Press.
Paul Slager, a lawyer for Le’s family and a partner at Silver Golub & Teitell LLP, declined to comment on the settlement but did say that the case was part of a broader trend he’s seen in negligent security cases.
“Ten years ago when people talked about negligent security it was ‘How do you keep unauthorized intruders out?’” he explains. “As a lawyer, the issues have shifted now that there has to be recognition by security professionals that just keeping intruders out doesn’t mean you’re maintaining a safe and secure environment.”
For instance, the security precautions that Yale had taken—installing security cameras and using a card access control system—were designed to keep unauthorized individuals from entering the laboratory that Le worked in. However, they were not designed
to address insider threats from those who had authorized access to the facility.
Now, there is a greater acknowledgment that sometimes the threat to employees and students is an insider threat, and there may be other ways to prevent those crimes or acts of workplace violence from taking place, Slager explains.
“Workplace violence is such a big issue, and this case had layers of workplace violence to it,” he says. “These people (Le and Clark) knew each other really well.”
One security method Slager says he’s seen more of recently is the rise in portable personal protective devices, which are designed to be carried by individuals and allow them to request help immediately.
For instance, the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut began giving all new students National Protective Systems’ Personal Alarm Locators (PALs) in 2003. When pressed, the device can pinpoint a student’s location on campus and alert campus security.
“The PAL system is only used on the main campus of the university. Your picture and location will automatically appear on two screens at the security office,” according to the university’s 2016 Annual Security and Fire Report. “Security will then respond to the location of your PAL, even if it is in motion.”
The device also provides critical health information about students in the event of an emergency. The university won the Jeanne Clery Campus Safety Award in 2003 for its use of the technology to improve campus safety.
The devices have been effective at deterring crimes, and in one instance prevented a crime when there was a conflict between a man and a woman on campus, Slager says.
Because of this, Slager explains that he argued in the Le family’s suit against Yale that giving this type of personal protective device to students and employees would have been an effective way to deter or interrupt the assault on Le, which killed her.
Le worked in an isolated part of the lab facility and Yale “didn’t offer sufficient protections from coworkers or people who had proper authority to be there,” Slager says.
Because Yale and the Le family settled their suit, no damages were awarded. But in the U.S. Security Services case, the damages the jury awarded the plaintiffs were significant. The case was being appealed at the time Security Management went to press, so they may be reduced, but the high amount was initially awarded, Sorrells says, due to the loss of life and the perception that more could have been done to prevent it.