Iowa store that sold gas to an arsonist may be liable, judge rules
An Iowa convenience store may be liable for selling gasoline to man who used the fuel to set fire to an apartment building, a judge has ruled. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Is a store that sells gasoline to an arsonist liable for damages that result from the sale?
That’s one of the central questions raised in a case that pits an insurance company against a Des Moines QuikTrip store and its parent corporation.
State Auto Property and Casualty Insurance Co., which is the insurance company for the Southern Knolls apartment complex in Des Moines, is suing QuikTrip Corp. of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in federal court, alleging gross negligence.
According to court records, Giovannte Curtis entered the QuikTrip gas station and convenience store at 3941 S.E. 14th St., in Des Moines, shortly after 6 p.m. on April 7, 2021. Curtis purchased several plastic soda-fountain cups, then took the cups outside to the gas pumps and tried to fill them with $2 worth of gasoline.
A QuikTrip employee stopped the pump to prevent the sale and explained to Curtis that plastic beverage cups were not appropriate containers to transport gasoline.
Curtis left the store and returned about 10 minutes later with an appropriate gas container. He encountered the store’s assistant manager, Solonia Gene, introduced himself to her, and then made several comments indicating that he intended to use the gas he was about to purchase for some sort of “nefarious and/or criminal purposes,” according to the insurer.
Curtis allegedly told Gene, “You going to get to know me real well,” and said he was “going to handle a situation” that was “going to be broadcast,” according to the lawsuit.
Despite those statements, QuikTrip sold Curtis several dollars’ worth of gas, the lawsuit claims. He then took his partially filled gas can and immediately walked across the street to the Southern Knolls apartment building, where he poured the gasoline on the floors and walls and ignited it with a lighter.
The fire quickly spread and caused significant damage to the building, although no injuries were reported. Curtis was later arrested and convicted of second-degree arson.
According to the lawsuit, Gene admitted she was worried about selling gas to Curtis because she believed he was going to use it to start a fire. She also is alleged to have said that she did not have time to intervene or call 911 because it was a busy time of night with a number of customers in the store, adding that she prayed that night because she was worried Curtis was going to cause damage or harm someone.
State Auto Property and Casualty alleges it paid more than $1 million to the owner of Southern Knolls as compensation for damages and lost rental income. The lawsuit seeks recovery of those payments.
Did QuickTrip have a duty to deny the sale?
QuikTrip has denied any wrongdoing, but earlier this year it argued for a dismissal, claiming it wasn’t responsible “for the actions of Curtis Giovannte.” (In virtually all of the civil court records, Curtis’ first and last names are mistakenly reversed.) The retailer also claimed that a business’ duty to protect against harm caused by others is “limited to those lawfully on the business’ land.”
The retailer said that “whatever duty QuikTrip may have had to control” Curtis or his actions ended once Curtis “left QuikTrip’s property.”
U.S. District Court Senior Judge James E. Gritzner ruled otherwise and denied the company’s motion for a dismissal.
In his ruling, Gritzner said there appeared to be no Iowa precedent as to whether an ordinary “duty of care” extends between the seller of a non-defective product and members of the general public who are harmed by a so-called “defective customer.”
The judge noted the New Mexico Supreme Court once addressed the question of whether a retailer had a duty to refuse the sale of gasoline to an intoxicated driver. In that case, a store was sued after selling fuel to a drunk customer who then caused an accident that claimed the life of another driver. The New Mexico court held that gasoline retailers have a duty to refrain from supplying fuel to “a driver the vendor knows, or has reason to know, is intoxicated.”
Gritzner stated that in the QuikTrip case, Curtis is alleged to have said he intended to “handle a situation” and that he would be “broadcast.” Also, the judge noted, Curtis first attempted to buy gas using plastic fountain cups, suggesting his intent was not to fill a fuel tank. That act also demonstrated a “disregard for the inherent dangers” of gasoline, the judge found.
“Together, these facts create a plausible inference that QuikTrip employees knew, or had reason to know, (Curtis) planned to cause harm at the time they sold him gasoline,” Gritzner ruled in denying the motion to dismiss. “QuikTrip controlled the sale of gasoline at its store. Indeed, it turned (Curtis) away once, only allowing him to buy gas upon his return to the store.”
A trial in the case is scheduled for Aug. 21, 2023.
QuickTrip has filed a third-party complaint against Curtis seeking compensation for any amount the company must pay to satisfy a judgment or settlement against its insurer.
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