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Liability A question of shopping safety

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January 3, 2008

Daily Business ReviewLax security in the vast parking garage at upscale Aventura Mall in north Miami-Dade County is placing shoppers at risk of serious crime, according to a new lawsuit by a woman who says she was raped as a result of the purported lapses.

But the developer and owner of the mall, Turnberry Associates in Aventura, not only denies any security problems but says the woman was not raped on its premises. The mall contends it has no independent knowledge, other than the woman’s claim, that the incident took place.

Mary Mass, 44, an Aventura resident who works as a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker, alleges that as a result of poor security she was raped one afternoon in November 2000 on the fourth floor of the parking garage near Bloomingdale’s.

In her negligence lawsuit, filed Nov. 27 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, Mass contends that the rape was part of a broader security problem at the mall garage, where a woman was murdered 10 months earlier on the same garage floor. In addition to the murder and rape, she asserts, the upscale mall has had multiple reports of criminal activity in the parking garage — from reckless display of a firearm to battery to theft — but has failed to improve security.

Mass, who is represented by Spencer Aronfeld of Aronfeld Trial Lawyers in Coral Gables, claims that the mall “failed to respond to the entirely foreseeable and predictive nature of serious criminal activity, which had historically occurred on the property.”

She alleges that New York City-based Bloomingdale’s, which is a division of Federated Department Stores, and Pennsylvania-based Allied Security, which provides security services at the mall, also were negligent. She’s demanding $10 million in compensatory damages for medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering. She said she hopes to start a foundation for rape victims.

Whether or not there is a security problem at the Aventura Mall, parking lots filled with shoppers have been hot spots for crime for several years. In 1995 an internal memo by a Wal-Mart executive cautioned that the problem of shoppers being assaulted in store parking lots had become severe. Indeed, according to a story in the Orlando Sentinel this week, the crime rate around an Orlando-area mall rose by more than 70 percent the year after the store opened.

Wal-Mart is hardly alone. In December the family of a man who was beaten to death in the parking lot of Illinois grocer Eagle Country Markets was sued in Bloomington, Ill., for failing to take adequate safety precautions. In September a large Columbia, S.C., mall was concerned enough about security that it undertook a multimillion-dollar renovation to install a 42-camera system.

Responding to the lawsuit, Turnberry Associates said the parking garage is safe, and it denied that the rape occurred. “Aventura Mall denies that the incident alleged in the complaint occurred at the Aventura Mall or the Bloomingdale’s parking garage,” the mall stated in a court filing dated Dec. 23.

The mall, which is being represented by Robert W. Hudson, a partner at Carlton Fields in Miami, also rejected any allegation that there is a wider security problem. In court papers, it denied the accuracy of Mass’ statement that the mall has ignored numerous security problems. It termed her allegations “argumentative, inflammatory and unnecessary.”

Hudson did not return calls for comment.

Donald Soffer, chief executive officer of Turnberry Associates, was on vacation in the Bahamas and could not be reached for comment. Marcie Getelman, general counsel for Turnberry Associates, reiterated the mall’s claim that there is no evidence the rape took place. She also added that security in the mall is “fine.”

Allied’s attorney, Paul H. Field, a partner at Lane Reese Aulick Summers & Field in Coral Gables, did not return calls for comment. A Bloomingdale’s spokeswoman declined to comment.

Aventura Mall is a high-end mall with approximately 250 stores in Aventura, an affluent northern Miami-Dade community. In addition to the Aventura Mall, other properties owned by Turnberry Associates include the Fontainebleau II in Miami Beach and Porto Vita in Aventura. It also developed Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in Aventura.

In her lawsuit, Mass contends that on Nov. 13, 2000, after shopping in the mall, she returned to her sport utility vehicle on the fourth floor of the garage.

As she approached her vehicle and reached for her keys, she claims, she was grabbed from behind. Her assailant held a knife to her throat, forced her behind her car and raped her. She says she never saw the face of the rapist, who fled the scene.

Mass did not report the incident to mall security or to Aventura Police until nearly nine months later, in August 2001. According to Capt. William Washa of the Aventura Police, Mass reported the incident so late that the chances of identifying the assailant were slim.

In an interview, Mass said she had been friendly with Donald Soffer and several members of his family for a long time, and originally did not plan to file a lawsuit. Instead, she said, she asked the Soffer family to pay a $10,000 settlement and to cover the costs of her rape treatment at the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. But she said the Soffer family refused to pay.

After her rape, she said, she returned to the parking garage and found that security was “nonexistent.” That’s when she decided to file suit. “If this had happened to one of the Soffers, there would be a security officer on every floor,” Mass said.

Ironically, prior to her rape, she said, she learned about the January 2000 murder in the garage from Jackie Soffer, daughter of Donald Soffer and partner in Turnberry Associates, while they were lunching together. Jackie Soffer did not return calls for comment.

On the morning of Jan. 4, 2000, a 28-year-old North Miami Beach resident named Cathy Hilton, who was a waitress at the mall’s Rainforest Cafe, was murdered in the Bloomingdale’s garage after getting out of her car to go to work.

According to Aventura police, a drifter named Timothy Joseph Layton strangled Hilton with a plastic rope, and stole her Mustang convertible. Using a security videotape, police were able to arrest Layton, who confessed to the crime and is now in prison.

Following the Hilton murder, officials at the mall announced plans to increase security. “You’ll see a higher level of visibility of patrolling than before,” said Bob Burke, the mall manager at the time.

Besides the Hilton murder, there have been several other reported instances of violent crime at the mall over the last three years. In June 1999, a man fired two shots at a mall security guard who had asked him to put out his cigar. In November 2000, a man shot and killed another man who had been having an affair with his wife, then shot and killed himself.

Mass explained her long delay in reporting the rape by saying she didn’t do so until after beginning treatment at Roxcy Bolton. She noted that it is not uncommon for rape victims to not immediately report such crimes.

But Capt. Washa said her delay greatly lessened the chances of catching the assailant. “Had she come forward a week or even a month after it happened, the guy might have been caught,” said Washa. “We might have been able to catch the guy on a video camera. But because it was so late everything had been erased.”

Matthew Haggman can be reached at [email protected] or at (305) 347-6649.


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