Third-party liability for criminal actions can be difficult to prove, but it can be done.
Generally, third parties have no duty or obligation to prevent criminal actions of other people. There are exceptions, however, for property owners who have actual or constructive notice of a pattern of the same or similar violent crimes. The key is showing that the criminal action that caused injury to the victim was foreseeable and that the property owner had a duty to minimize the risk for those lawfully on site.
One such case was recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In Jenkins v. C.R.E.S. Mgmt. LLC, plaintiff alleged an apartment complex where he worked and also resided had a duty to shield him from hard that was both unreasonable and foreseeable as a result of criminal acts committed by third parties.
Plaintiff was employed as a “courtesy officer” at a Houston apartment complex. He was responsible for responding to resident requests for assistance, addressing reports involving criminal activity on site and contacting the police if necessary. The owner of the property compensated him in part by providing a rent-free apartment on the site.
One morning, around 3 a.m., plaintiff was awoken by someone pounding on the door. He assumed it was a resident in need of help, so he decided to open the door. There were two men in the hallway whom plaintiff did not recognize. One of the men raised his hand and pointed a handgun at plaintiff, who put his arms up in self-defense. Without any explanation or warning, the man shot him.
Plaintiff was struck in the elbow. He made the split-second decision to “play dead.” The men took off on foot, never attempting to enter the apartment. Police were called to investigate, but they never identified or found the two assailants.
The worker filed a premises liability lawsuit against the company. (Although he was employed by the company and normally, exclusive remedy provisions would prohibit legal action against an employer for injury, plaintiff was victimized in his capacity as a resident, while he was off-duty.)
Defendant company moved for summary judgment, arguing plaintiff hadn’t proven the assault against him was foreseeable in light of the criminal history at the apartment complex. In the 12 months before this happened, the complex had logged seven aggravated assaults, 14 residential burglaries, seven motor vehicle burglaries, six thefts, four auto thefts and one sexual assault. There was also a robbery-shooting that occurred 18 months prior to this incident.
The magistrate judge hearing the case placed limits on the foreseeability review to only those prior crimes that were violent, thus excluding all the thefts and burglaries. Based on this narrowed review, the judge granted defense motion for summary judgment, finding the crime wasn’t foreseeable.
It should be noted that while criminal conduct can be difficult to compartmentalize, courts have held that, for example, crimes like vandalism or theft aren’t necessarily enough to make a stabbing death foreseeable. So most reviews will be limited to violent crimes on or near the site during a specific time frame.
On appeal, plaintiff argued the trial court erred in designating burglaries as irrelevant in the foreseeability analysis. Specifically, residential burglaries, he argued, could foreshadow a violent crime. The appeals court agreed, and argued that when considering the 14 residential burglaries in conjunction with the other violent crimes, a material question of fact was raised as to whether the attack was foreseeable. The case was remanded for further proceedings.
Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.