Michael Haggard and William Andrew Haggard of the Haggard Law Firm. (J. Albert Diaz)
Police never found the man who in 2008 broke into a Fort Lauderdale mobile home, marched a young woman outside at gunpoint and raped her in a wooded area in the trailer park — but she still won some measure of justice.
Amanda Slone heard from the Haggard Law Firm, a group of Coral Gables attorneys dedicated to filing negligent security lawsuits against those responsible for crime-riddled properties. She agreed to sue the trailer park, which had seen a stabbing, a shooting, an attempted sexual assault and an attempted abduction in a span of a few years. A jury awarded her $1.6 million.
Slone has since gone by the trailer park, which under new ownership has acquired a six-foot fence and a security gate. Even though Slone said the years of depositions and the 2011 trial were “worse than the incident itself,” the support the Haggard Law Firm gave her made it bearable.
“They fought it tooth and nail,” she said. “The first time I drove by there and saw the fencing up and how much it had been cleaned up and what a safer place it was, it made it worth it for me to go through [the lawsuit], because there are so many kids and elderly people who live there.”
Results like those are what drives the eight-attorney Haggard Law Firm, which has won a string of multimillion-dollar negligent security verdicts and settlements in recent years. The firm works not only to overcome the unique legal challenges of these cases, but also to advocate for crime prevention measures to groups of residential landlords, commercial property owners and state and federal lawmakers.
“You hope you can reach the entire industry,” firm managing partner Michael Haggard said.
Haggard’s father, former military judge William “Andy” Haggard, started the firm in 1993 and accepted mostly personal injury and aviation cases. When Michael Haggard joined the firm a few years later, he took a liking to negligent security cases, which combine criminal incidents with civil liability.
The firm’s big break came in 2007, when Haggard won a nearly $103 million verdict for a cruise ship worker who was rendered quadriplegic by a shooter in a Miami strip club parking lot. A decade later, negligent security lawsuits make up about 60 percent of the firm’s caseload, with trials all over Florida and in jurisdictions across the U.S.
Since January 2016, the firm’s work has yielded a $10.1 million settlement for a man shot and paralyzed in a home invasion, a $3 million settlement for a nightclub parking lot shooting, a $1.8 million settlement for an apartment-complex shooting and a $1 million settlement for a shooting outside a grocery store.
But many of the cases go to trial, which means Haggard works hard to find and hire lawyers with trial experience, regardless of what they know about civil law. Haggard Law partners Todd Michaels and Christopher Marlowe used to try cases against each other when Michaels was a public defender and Marlowe was a prosecutor. Partner Douglas McCarron also tried about 50 cases as a prosecutor.
Because negligent security cases are so costly to pursue, all of the crimes involved are serious — which can make it hard for juries to understand how anyone is to blame except the perpetrator.
“The first question is, why in the world is a corporation responsible for a violent act from a third party?” Haggard said.
The attorneys have to get juries to understand that while the criminal court deals with the crime, the civil court has to address the companies that could have prevented it.
That job is getting easier because of technology, Haggard said. It’s easy to get a list of all the gunshots in a property’s vicinity, showing jurors that an apartment complex was going without security guards despite a record of violent incidents. There are also fewer excuses for not reviewing security footage — nowadays, every guard has a smartphone and can check cameras during a patrol, Haggard said.
“The security industry since 9/11 has developed standards that are rigorous and unfortunately are not followed,” he said.
Defendants also often argue that they can’t be held liable in cases where crime victims were specifically targeted by their assailants, a challenging argument to counter. But the Haggard Law Firm tells juries the key test is not the criminal’s motives, but whether the property had adequate security. In a case where a woman’s abusive ex found out her new address and waited outside to shoot her, the firm obtained an $8 million settlement during trial after arguing the man sat for three hours undetected by security.
Haggard’s livelihood may ride on negligent security cases, but he said he is doing his best to do away with them. He speaks at about six national conferences per year, trying to teach owners of apartment complexes, gas stations and other properties how to meet security standards.
He also lobbies lawmakers as a member of the advisory board of the National Crime Victim Bar Association. One victory was convincing several Florida Republicans to change their minds on a Gov. Jeb Bush-era tort reform bill that would have required juries to apportion fault to intentional tortfeasors, such as shooters, even if they weren’t identified.
“The result of that would be that we would reduce liability on the fault of third-party negligence, but it wouldn’t really help the victim at all,” said Jeff Dion, director of the association. “And if we remove that liability, what we also do is remove that economic incentive [for businesses to improve security].”
Haggard got the bar association involved, pushing Republican lawmakers to consider how the bill would affect crime victims. In a “huge upset,” Dion said, the efforts killed the bill.
The managing partner is following the same strategy he used after a series of near-drowning cases got him involved in supporting a federal law to improve pool safety. Before the law passed, Haggard won a $104 million verdict for a teen who suffered brain damage after a pool drain held him underwater. Since the law was enacted, pool suction-entrapment cases have dwindled to near-extinction, Haggard said.
He would love to see the same thing happen with negligent security.
“That would be awesome — to put ourselves out of business out of safety,” Haggard said.