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Court: Sheetz not liable for attack

A Pennsylvania appeals court earlier this week absolved Sheetz Inc., an Altoona convenience store chain, of civil liability for injuries suffered by an Ashville man who was beaten and robbed in the parking lot of one of its stores.

The injured man, Robert Sherry, a driver for CLI Transport, a Sheetz subsidiary, was in the parking lot of Sheetz Store No. 7 at Sixth Avenue and 58th Street early on March 3, 2016, when he was attacked by Eric Hageder of New Florence, Westmoreland County. At that time, Sherry was a customer who had just exited the store.

Meanwhile, Hageder had assaulted his girlfriend at a home in Robinson the night before, stolen a car from her neighbor, and drove to a convenience store in Indiana where he beat a man and took his vehicle.

He then drove to the Altoona store where he opened the hood of the truck — allegedly to check on an engine problem.

Within minutes of pulling into the Sheetz parking lot, Hageder used a 17-inch socket wrench to attack Sherry. The victim suffered injuries to his head, back, forearm and elbow.

The attack lasted 33 seconds, at which point Hageder took Sherry’s Silverado pickup truck and continued his flight.

Police were quickly on Hageder’s trail, and after a 40-mile chase ended in Huntingdon County, he was arrested and charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering others and flight to elude police.

He is serving a nine- to 24-year sentence in the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands in Somerset.

The injuries to Sherry were serious enough that he could no longer perform his job, according to his Pittsburgh attorney, Joseph W. Cavrich.

In 2016, Sherry brought a lawsuit contending Sheetz Inc. was negligent for not providing adequate security in the lot of Sheetz Store

No. 7. The lawsuit contended that the store has a history of violent crimes.

In an April ruling, Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan dismissed the lawsuit, and on Wednesday the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld Sullivan’s ruling.

It pointed out that Hageder was in the lot of the store for just over five minutes. The assault took only 33 seconds, at which point Hageder and his traumatically injured girlfriend fled in the stolen truck.

Hageder’s crime spree, the appeals court stated, showed he “had his mind set on engaging in significant and extreme criminal activity. …”

While the plaintiff was critical of the lack of adequate lighting in the parking lot, inadequate staffing at the store and other security issues, those alleged defects “did not play a substantial part in generating (Sherry’s) harm as Hageder was unlikely to be deterred by such things,” the Superior Court opinion, written by Judge John T. Bender, concluded.

The opinion, joined by judges Maria McLaughlin and John L. Musmanno, pointed out that even if the employees in the store had known an assault was taking place outside the store, they are not required to act as police officers “in the face of an ongoing assault.

“Indeed, imposing such a duty could place the business employees at risk of harm and impose liability on the business if its employees are injured,” the Superior Court opinion explained.

It also noted that when Sheetz employees became aware that an assault had occurred, they were quick to react. Emergency personnel were at the store caring for the victim within seven minutes of the assault.

The lawsuit brought by Sherry focused on inadequate lighting in the parking lot of the store, inadequate number of staff on duty that night, and whether security overall was up to par.

One employee, in a deposition, expressed concern about the security at the store, noting she was more aware at night.

Asked why, she stated, “Because it’s Altoona and it is dark. More crimes happen at night than during the day.”

The plaintiff presented a security expert as part of its case, Jack Dowling of JD Security Consultants of Downingtown, who criticized the lighting in the parking lot and pointed out other alleged security issues.

Sheetz, however, defended itself, noting that the lighting exceeded code standards.

It also defended the safety of the store itself.

In the five-year period prior to the assault, Altoona police had received 64 complaints about activities around the store, 35 of which involved suspicious activity or possible violence.

Only three involved actual violence: a man threatening to use a baseball bat on another man’s car; two girls in a “nuisance fight” and a stabbing.

Sheetz maintained the store is not in a high crime area.

A security operations analyst for Sheetz testified that every Sheetz location (hundreds of stores) has 16-32 security cameras and that videos of the stores are constantly monitored.

The stores have safety buttons and employees are equipped with safety pendants, it was reported.

The opinion also discussed Hageder.

Only hours before arriving in Altoona, he had punched his girlfriend in the face, kicked her in the stomach and shot her up with heroin, then took her against her will.

He stole a car, beat a man in the parking lot of an Indiana convenience store, and committed assault moments after arriving in Altoona.

After police arrested him, Hageder was told 15 to 20 police cars were in the chase, to which he replied, “I was hoping for more.”

He told police he had a past record of assault, noting it was “not my first rodeo.” He reported he was on parole. He told police, “I wanted to go out suicide by (expletive) cop.”

When asked why he committed the crimes, he answered,“I went … nuts. That’s my side of the story. I went … nuts.”

Cavrich, Sherry’s attorney, said he disagreed with the Superior Court decision to not allow the lawsuit to move forward. He said he has

30 days to decide if the plaintiff will seek further review by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Cavrich said of his client, “It’s been a tough stretch for him.”

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