Can A Third-Party Successfully Sue You For Failing To Provide Service Beyond The Scope Of Your Contract?

Sometimes appellate opinions are issued on a seemingly narrow subject matter that can apply to many other factual contexts.  In one such recent example, a Florida appellate court concluded that a security services provider could not be held responsible for allegedly failing to protect a person who was criminally attacked.  The reason for the appellate court’s decision is what is interesting, and could be applied well beyond the factual circumstances involved in the specific case:  the security provider’s contract with Miami-Dade County established the hours of service, and those hours of service ended at 7:00 pm each day, therefore the security provider had no legal duty to provide security to a person who was attacked at 8:00 pm.  See Cascante v. 50 State Security Services, Inc., — So. 3d —, Case No. 3D18-1085, 2019 WL 7174580 (Fla. 3d DCA Dec. 26, 2019).

In reaching its decision, the appellate court discussed the concepts of “zone of risk” and the corresponding legal duty for a security provider to “protect persons lawfully on defined premises.”  Id.  Importantly, however, the appellate court explained:  “Nonetheless, the extent of the undertaking as defined under the terms of the contract should define the scope of the duty.”  Id. (internal quotations omitted).  Applying this doctrine, the appellate court explained its conclusion that the responsibility to enact reasonable security measures was borne solely by the County:

Here, under the unambiguous contractual terms, the County alone was charged with determining “the number of security officers, the shift schedule, and level of training required.” Indeed, as demonstrated by the record, for the duration of the contract, the County never strayed from its initial determination that the South Miami Metrorail parking garage only be staffed by a single roving guard from seven o’clock a.m. to seven o’clock p.m.

Further, although 50 State was endowed with the responsibility for identifying “evolving and existing crime patterns and series,” forecasting “future crime trends,” and providing “data to support departmental planning activities,” the contract is devoid of any reciprocal obligation of the County to take action in reliance on such information. Indeed, as borne out by deposition testimony adduced below, despite recommendations to the contrary, the County refused to vary its staffing schedules.

Id.  Thus, the security provider could not be held responsible for allegedly failing to do something that it was not required or even authorized to do under its contract.

This case underscores the importance of having written agreements that define the service obligations not just in security contracts, but in any other contracts that call for services to be rendered that could impact third-parties.

The applications of this legal doctrine are nearly endless, given that most service contracts can impact persons outside of the contract relationship.  For example, engineering, design, management, or even janitorial services provided to a building owner.  All of these services naturally impact tenants and business invitees, but if the service contract sufficiently defines the scope of work being performed and expressly sets forth who has responsibility for determining that scope, the service provider should not be held responsible for work that might have been performed, but was not.

Matthew J. Meyer is a Partner in our Florida office.