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When Crime Pays

WHEN PROPERTY OWNERS ARE LIABLE FOR CRIMES

We’ve all heard of so-called “slip and fall” cases where a person invited onto a residential or business property encounters a hazardous condition and is injured somehow—often times literally slipping and falling. In these cases, the injured person must show that the owner of the property had notice of the dangerous condition and failed to correct it; in legal terms, the owner of the property had a legal duty to ensure that the premises were safe from hazardous conditions and by not correcting reasonably foreseeable dangers on the property, that duty was breached. The breach caused injury, which led to damages such as medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering. These damages are what the injured person seeks to recover in a typical premises liability lawsuit.

But what if the injury is caused by the intentional conduct of a third party, such as occurs in a robbery or an assault? Traditionally, criminal conduct is what is considered a superseding intervening event which breaks the chain of causation, relieving a property owner of liability. But the area of negligent security premises liability is an exception to that rule. Negligent security premises liability places a greater duty on property owners for foreseeable criminal conduct that causes harm to invitees. Common examples of places where negligent security premises liability applies are parking garages, shopping malls, and apartment complexes.

PUBLIC POLICY

At first it might seem counterintuitive or unfair to hold property owners liable for the acts of a third party not under their control, but public policy favors accountability for the safety of patrons. If people are on the property to live, shop, or do business—ultimately benefitting the property owner—then they should be able to do those things safely. Therefore, placing a duty on property owners to protect lawful visitors from the foreseeable crimes of third parties is viewed as in the best interests of all parties.

Of course, allowing a civil suit against a property owner for the criminal act of a third party opens up an avenue for recovery from a “deep pocket,” usually the insurer of the property owner. Most criminals do not have the financial resources to satisfy a judgment for damages if one were obtained by an injured party. Although not without controversy, this is yet another reason to hold property owners to a greater duty.

FORESEEABILITY

Just as with traditional premises liability, foreseeability is the key element in a property owner’s liability for negligent security. Some jurisdictions follow the similar act/crimes approach, which as the name suggests looks at prior similar crimes to determine if a property owner was on notice of the danger to invitees. If, for example, there had been a recent assault in a shopping mall parking lot, and another assault occurred, then the owner of the parking lot could be held liable for negligent security if it could be shown that the parking lot lacked adequate lighting, security patrols, or other security measures in light of the foreseeable criminal act.

Most jurisdictions follow the totality of circumstances rule, which explicitly rejects the similar bad acts rule, notably because the first victim always loses under that approach and that makes for bad policy. The better policy is to look at the totality of the circumstances to determine if the property owner was put on notice of dangerous conditions and foreseeable harm. For instance, is the shopping mall in a neighborhood which is experiencing a lot of violence? Is there construction in the area which has reduced traffic and lighting, making the area desolate and more dangerous? Recent assaults would be part of the circumstances taken into consideration, but not required for foreseeability.

FIRST STEPS

One way to determine if a criminal act was foreseeable is to examine the crime grids of the area in which the property is located. Crime grids show prior crimes, crime analyses, police reports, etc. of the surrounding area or neighborhood. Footage from surveillance cameras is also an excellent source of information, since it can show the actual crime and the conditions of the property before, during and after the crime. An inspection of the site and area where the criminal act occurred immediately after the act (or as close to when it occurred as possible) is crucial. Such an inspection can reveal conditions such as poor lighting, missing or broken locks, gaps in fencing, etc.

CONTACT YOUR ATTORNEY

If you or a loved one has been injured due to negligent security, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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Thomas Law Firm
Located at 945 East Paces Ferry Road, Resurgens Plaza, GA 30326.

Phone: (678) 264-8348.
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