Negligence

Article excerpt

According to a decision by the Supreme Court of Louisiana, a company can be found partially or completely liable for a criminal act that occurs due to the company's negligence. The case adds Louisiana to a growing list of states addressing the issue of the fault of a negligent property owner versus that of the criminal.

In October 1988, Christi Veazey was living in an apartment rented from Southmark Management Corporation when an intruder climbed through her second-story bedroom window, raped her, and fled. The plaintiff could not identify the assailant and he was never apprehended.

Veazey sued Southmark for inadequate security and for misrepresenting the security of the premises. At the trial, the plaintiff testified that she had complained to the management that inadequate window locks and lighting made the complex more inviting to criminals. According to Veazey, Southmark told her that police deputies lived in the complex and provided security. Southmark also allegedly informed Veazey that, except for one burglary two years prior, no criminal activity had occurred at the complex. Evidence introduced at the trial showed, however, that the deputies did not provide security for the residents and that several rapes and attempted rapes had occurred at the complex over the previous year.

The trial court jury awarded Veazey $180,000 in damages, but rendered an inconsistent liability verdict. The jury found that Southmark was 100 percent responsible for the crime and Veazey was not at fault in any way. When determining the degree of fault with regard to who would pay the damages, however, the jury found Southmark 60 percent at fault and Veazey 40 percent.

Plaintiff's attorney filed a motion for a new judgment by the court to correct the inconsistency. The judge granted the motion and found Southmark liable for the entire award.

The court of appeal affirmed the case, finding that no error had been committed in either the decision or the allocation of damages. The state supreme court affirmed the decisions of the lower courts, ruling that evidence of inadequate security was substantial, leaving no question that Southmark contributed to the plaintiff's injuries.

The state supreme court also discussed how the lower courts' assignment of blame among the parties applied to Louisiana's "comparative fault" doctrine, even though the trial court had not directly discussed the doctrine. In this case, the jury had determined responsibility as it applied to Southmark (an unintentional or negligent party) and Veazey (the victim). The jury had not considered the rapist (the intentional party), on whom the responsibility would typically be placed under the comparative fault doctrine as applied in Louisiana. …