Limited Liability for Criminal Assaults in Park Facilities

Article excerpt

Organizations and communities that consider providing areas in which physical activity can occur (such as designated multi-use trails for walking, jogging, biking or open playing fields) are often hesitant to do so because of security concerns related to their possible liability for criminal assaults occurring on the premises. For this issue and recreational injuries in general, the fear of liability is much worse than the reality.

As indicated by the following description of reported court opinions, as a general rule of law, landowners are not held liable for the criminal acts of others. A very limited exception may exist where the landowner has clear notice that a particular type of criminal activity is foreseeable, usually involving a specific individual on the premises with known dangerous propensities. Under such limited circumstances, the landowner may have a duty to provide security, particularly where the clear threat of criminal activity is limited to a rather circumscribed area, like a zoo or amusement park. Conversely, as illustrated by the cases described herein, a multi-use trail is not the type of facility which would typically impose a legal duty on the public or private landowner to provide security or police protection against criminal assaults.

Notice of Similar Criminal Acts?

In the case of Ameijeras v. Metropolitan Dade County, 534 So.2d 812 (Fla.App. 1988), plaintiff was shot and rendered paraplegic in a robbery attempt while jogging along a nature trail in defendant's park. Plaintiff alleged that the county had facilitated the criminal attack by allowing foliage along the trail to become overgrown. Specifically, plaintiff alleged the county knew that homosexual activity, illicit drug activity, and arson attempts had occurred in the park, but had failed to provide adequate protection. The county responded that the attack on plaintiff was not foreseeable. As a result, the county contended that it owed no legal duty to warn or protect plaintiff.

According to the court, a landowner owes a legal duty to those authorized to use the premises (i.e., invitees) to prevent criminal attacks that are foreseeable. Within this context, the court emphasized that the landowner's legal duty only arises when there is actual knowledge or notice, or should know, of similar criminal acts committed on the premises. Applying these principles to the facts of the case, the court found no evidence that the county actually knew or should have known of criminal activity in this particular public park. Specifically, the court noted that no violent crimes had been reported in the park during the two-year period preceding the attack on plaintiff. As a result, the court found no evidence that the county had sufficient notice of similar criminal activity in the park to impose a duty to provide increased security. Having found the attack was not foreseeable, the court concluded that the county could not be held liable for plaintiff's injuries.

Open and Obvious Danger

Similarly, the court in Davis v. City of Miami, 568 So.2d 1301 (Fla App. 1990) found that the city did not violate any legal duty when it failed to warn plaintiff about the danger of criminal assaults in a city park. In this particular instance, the assault on plaintiff occurred at night after the park was closed. According to the court, the city owed no duty to warn plaintiff of the risk of criminal assault in the park after it was closed. Specifically, the court found that the danger in question (i.e, risk of criminal assault) was an open and obvious danger in the "indisputably high-crime area in which the park was located." As noted by the court, any duty to warn would have required proof of dangerous condition which was not "open to ordinary observation."

Notice of Assailant's Dangerous Propensities?

In contrast, the court in Hill v. City of North Miami Beach, 613 So.2d 1356 (Fla.App. 1993) found evidence that the attack on plaintiff was foreseeable. …