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GMAC's security questioned

Lawsuits filed in the aftermath of one of Florida's worst mass murders suggest business tactics in the loan office where the slayings took place may have contributed to the carnage.

Denise Highfill often told her husband she was afraid to work the counter area at the GMAC office here. She came up with a plan in case one of the angry customers who routinely entered the office became violent: crawl under her desk and hide.

It didn't work. That's where James Pough fatally shot her June 18, 1990, when he walked into the office and opened fire, killing eight employees and a customer.

Four other people were injured before Pough, 42, killed himself.

Affidavits by widowers Robert Highfill and Ray David _ whose wife Janice also feared violence at work _ and others describe an aggressive loan-collecting operation in which employees feared injury or death from irate customers who routinely entered the unsecured office, the Florida Times-Union reported for Sunday's editions. Highfill and David are suing GMAC.

Ron Echevarria, a GMAC employee and shooting survivor, said the office aggressively handled "an extremely large amount" of risky loans, which increased the number of angry customers. The situation was made worse by the absence of security measures at the office, he said.

In his affidavit, William H. Brill, a security consultant from Annapolis, Md., said even minimal security measures would have helped. He said the office's aggressive business practices mandated that at least there should have been a bank-like counter area with glass, for example.

Circuit Judge Charles O. Mitchell Jr. has sealed dozens of other documents in the six-volume file at the request of GMAC lawyers, who say the file contains trade secrets. In it are details of security policies, collection procedures, potentially violent customers and records pertaining to Pough.

Mitchell denied GMAC's motion to dismiss last month. He said ample evidence exists to support a finding that GMAC and former office manager Herman M. Johnston knew of the danger and deliberately violated their own business and safety procedures to the point where death or serious injury was a "virtual certainty."

GMAC appealed the ruling this month.

To succeed, Highfill and David must prove much more than negligence.

A 1986 Florida Supreme Court ruling says surviving relatives of people killed on the job are entitled to workers' compensation but, to sue, must show that the employer intentionally caused the death or did something "substantially certain" to result in injury or death. Even gross negligence isn't enough, the ruling says.

"The record is devoid of any intentional conduct .

.

. by the defendants which contributed to the death of either Ms. Highfill or Ms. David," says a GMAC motion.

Terry Sullivan, a GMAC spokesman in Detroit, said the day of the shootings, which he called "unexpected" and "random," was the saddest in the company's 74-year history.

"No financial services business . . . can predict a customer's propensity for violence while reviewing a credit application, nor can they anticipate or prevent irrational acts such as the killings committed by Pough," Sullivan said.

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