Duty to Protect Customers from Crime

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 What Is Premises Liability?

Premises liability is the legal theory that holds property owners responsible for accidents and injuries that occur on their property. This includes any accidents and/or injuries that occurred in and around their business.

Premises liability laws require that property owners ensure the safety of any person who legally enters their property. Premises liability laws also require property owners take all reasonable measures in order to accomplish this. As a legal theory, premises liability is generally associated with personal injury cases in which a person’s injury was caused by unsafe or defective conditions on someone else’s property.

Premises liability claims are frequently based on the legal concept of negligence. Negligence refers to a business owner failing to exercise reasonable care, with that failure resulting in the damage or injury of a customer or visitor.

In order to succeed in proving the negligence of a business owner, and therefore premises liability claim, the plaintiff (i.e. the party that was harmed) must prove the following elements:

  1. The owner owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. There was a dangerous, unsafe, or defective condition that was foreseeable on the owner’s property;
  3. The owner knew of the dangerous, unsafe, or dangerous condition and failed to remedy it through reasonable actions; and
  4. That the injury suffered by the plaintiff was the result of the owner’s failure to exercise their duty of care to prevent foreseeable harms and the resulting injury.

What Is a Business Owner’s Duty to Protect Customers from Crime?

Business owners have a duty to take reasonable steps in order to protect customers and visitors against acts of criminals. However, this legal duty to protect customers only exists when dangerous acts or crimes are foreseeable. This means that the business owner must know that there is prior criminal activity that has been occuring on their property, and then fail to take reasonable steps to provide proper security against the known dangers.

When a customer goes into a business, they have a right to expect a reasonably safe experience at the business. For example, a patron of a business would reasonably expect that business owner’s to have some sort of security present at their business. In some cases, a business owner may be held liable for violating their duty to protect consumers if they have inadequate security at their establishment.

It is important to note that a business owner typically is not required to protect customers or visitors from a third party’s criminal actions. However, if the business owner knows of prior criminal activity on their property, and then fails to provide proper security against those known security dangers, they may be liable for a customer or visitor’s injuries.

As such, a business owner will typically not be able to succeed in pushing liability on a third party if there is an abundance of past evidence of criminal activity. The more evidence of criminal activity in the past on the property, the more likely the business owner has a legal duty to provide security measures, such as:

  • Security guards;
  • Security cameras;
  • Improved lighting; or
  • Security gates or fences.

What Criminal Acts Are Considered Foreseeable?

Once again, a business owner has a duty of care to ensure that customers or visitors of their property are reasonably safe. Legally speaking, customers that visit a business are known as invitees.

An invitee is a customer or patron who has been invited onto the property by the owner of the property. The property owner has a legal duty to warn all invitees of risks that they are aware of, if the risk of harm is unreasonable. Additionally, property owners also have a duty to inspect their premises in order to make themselves aware of any risks, and take reasonable precautions to ensure their property is safe for invitees.

The purpose of imposing a legal duty upon business owners to protect their invitees from foreseeable attacks, is the hope that business owners will increase their expenditures on security measures, reducing the amount of crime in the area. However, a business owner must only protect from reasonably foreseeable criminal acts.

When determining the foreseeability of criminal acts, the following list of factors will be considered:

  • Past Criminal Acts: Evidence of past criminal acts that have occurred at the property will be analyzed to determine whether the business owner knew or should have known that future criminal acts were likely.
    • Once again, the more frequent the criminal activity, the more security measures property owners will be expected to take;
  • Previous Claims Against the Business: If the business has been sued in the past for a criminal act that occurred on their property, then any similar criminal acts that occur in the future will likely be considered foreseeable to the business owner.
  • The Identity of the Criminal Actor: In some cases a business owner may be able to avoid liability if the victim knew their attacker;
  • Security Taken by Similar Businesses in the Area: If similar businesses and properties in the area have enacted security measures, and a business owner chooses to not take similar security measures, such failures to take similar measures may be considered unreasonable; and/or
  • Acts of the Party Harmed: Customers and patrons are still responsible for their own safety. As such, if they are at fault for their own harm, such as by putting themselves in harm’s way, the business owner may be able to avoid liability.

The above list is not an exhaustive list of all of the factors that a court may use to determine the legal duty a business owes to their invitees. In fact, there may be local laws regarding premises liability that may put an additional duty on business owners in a certain area.

Are Landowners Responsible if There is No Prior History of Criminal Activity?

Once again, a landowner does not generally owe a duty to provide higher levels of security to its customers, unless there is evidence of prior acts of criminal activity that have occurred in the area. A cost-benefit analysis utilizing the above factors will be utilized by courts to determine whether imposing a duty upon a business owner to guard against criminal attacks is reasonable.

When utilizing cost-benefit analysis, liability would only be imposed upon a business owner when the cost, monetary or otherwise, to their invitees of not implementing reasonable security measures outweighs the burden or cost to the business owner of adopting such precautionary security measures.

Business owners typically will use a cost-benefit analysis to determine what security measures they should implement on their property and for their business. Such costs are typically deemed the cost of doing business.

What Are Some Examples of Common Crimes Involved in a Premises Liability Claim Against a Business Owner?

There are many criminal acts that could occur on a business owner’s premises. Some of the most common criminal acts that occur at a business include:

Once again, if the criminal activity in the area is high, then a business owner will more likely owe a duty to implement reasonable security measures in order to prevent criminal acts to their invitees.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help if a Crime Occurred on My Property?

If you were injured while present at a business, you should consult with a personal injury lawyer. An experienced personal injury attorney will be able to help you determine whether or not you may be able to hold the business owner liable for your injuries. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.

If you are a business owner, an experienced property attorney will be able to help you take the necessary steps in order to avoid potential civil liability. If an invitee has suffered harm on your property, an experienced property attorney will also be able to help you determine your best legal defense against their claim.

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