Crime Scene Liability: When a Crime Occurs on Your Property, Who Is Responsible?

Article excerpt

November 24, 2002: a night of socializing fun at a party for teenagers turned into tragedy when a fatal shooting erupted at the event. Hundreds of youths were attending a dance at the Troostwood Banquet Hall in Kansas City, Missouri when Yntrell Duley confronted rival gang members on the dance floor. Duley pulled a handgun, fired into the crowd and fled. Three youths were wounded, and 17-year-old Kristi Carroll was fatally struck in the head.

The shooting was obviously a criminal act, and Duley was later convicted of second-degree murder as well as numerous other charges. He was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 189 years. But the incident also spawned a civil liability trial, which ended with the jury awarding the victim's parents a 55 million verdict against the banquet hall owners.

The parents' grief, transferred to a lawsuit, is yet another example of how victims of crime are no longer solely relying on the criminal court system for justice. Increasingly, these victims are becoming plaintiffs, suing parties who may have some association with the crime. The most common thread tying a firm to a crime is simply that the crime happened on company property. To prevent your firm from becoming a victim of a damaging lawsuit, it is important to understand how companies are sued for other people's crimes and what can be done to protect a business from unfair liability verdicts.

Crime can occur anywhere: a robbery in a fast food restaurant, a shooting in a plant by an employee's estranged spouse, a rape in a company restroom, or an assault in a private motor home parked on a casino parking lot. The criminal is obviously to blame in all these cases, but that is not stopping victims from asking the courts to decide if the property owner should pay damages to the victim for not preventing the crime.

The criminal is often a complete stranger to the owner of a crime scene location. But what if you know a dangerous person is on your property? What if an employee poses a criminal threat? If a customer, employee, tenant or anyone else is the victim of a criminal attack on your firm's property, then there is a good chance you are going to get sued.

Is There a Duty to Prevent Violent Crime?

In order to hold a company responsible, the victim must prove three things: the property or business owner had a duty to protect him or her from harm; the owner breached that duty; and the owner and/or property manager contributed to cause the injury. The issue of a firm's responsibility often hangs on whether or not the owner had a duty to prevent the criminal attack. Without duty, there can be no legal responsibility. A judge usually determines if duty exists and can dismiss the case if the company had no duty to prevent the crime. That scenario avoids a jury trial in which a sympathetic jury might award large damages based on the simple notion that a company "could have done something more" to prevent the crime.

There is general agreement on two basic principles when determining if a person has a duty to prevent a violent crime. First, a person typically does not have a duty to protect another person from violent crime. Second, there may be a duty if a crime is reasonably foreseeable. Beyond that, there is little agreement regarding what circumstances will create a duty by a property owner to prevent criminal attacks on his or her property. The law continues to evolve as different courts take different approaches from state to state and sometimes even within a state.

Part of what makes a criminal attack foreseeable is the relationship between the victim and the company. There must be some sort of relationship before a company can be held responsible, but it does not have to be much. Customers, guests and generally anyone who comes onto a property with some kind of permission can sue the owner. Once a relationship is shown, then the question is whether the crime was reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances. …