Generally speaking, a property owner does not have a duty to prevent dangerous or harmful acts of third parties. Under Massachusetts personal injury law there is an exception to the general rule, in that a property owner can be held liable for ignoring criminal activity it knew or should have known was occurring on the premises. In Charles Northrup v. National Amusements, the Appeals Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently clarified that a property owner will only be liable for a criminal act occurring on its property if it had knowledge of prior similar acts.
In Northrup, the Plaintiff was sitting in his vehicle in the parking lot of the Defendant’s movie theater, when he was stabbed by an individual suffering from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Plaintiff subsequently sued the Defendant for negligence, alleging the Defendant’s failure to provide police protection on the premises caused his injuries. The Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing the stabbing was not foreseeable. The trial court granted Defendant’s Motion and Plaintiff appealed. On appeal, the Appeals Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts affirmed.
The court noted that while police reports indicated there were thirty incidents at the movie theater in the three years prior to the incident, only three of the incidents resulted in an arrest, and only one incident involved a violent act. The remainder of the incidents involved theft and other property crimes. Additionally, the internal incident reports written by the Defendant indicated there were seventy-one incidents in the three-year period prior to the stabbing. While most of the incident reports did not indicate any criminal activity, four of the reports indicated violent acts, including one report of an incident in which rocks were thrown at children when they were leaving the theater.