Property Owners Not Liable for Unforeseeable Criminal Acts of Third Parties

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.

In analyzing whether the movie theater should be liable for the Plaintiff’s injuries, the court noted that where a property owner knew or should have known of prior attacks and subsequently failed to make the premises safe from future attacks, the property owner may be held liable for a violent act against a person on its premises. In sum, the court explained that any attack must be foreseeable for liability to attach against the property owner. In applying the applicable standards to the facts of the Northrup case the court ruled summary judgment was properly granted. The court found the prior criminal acts and incidents to be insufficient to support the argument that the Defendant should have reasonably foreseen the Plaintiff’s stabbing. The court further noted that there were no preemptive measures the Defendant could have reasonably taken that would have prevented the Plaintiff’s attack. The court was not persuaded by the Plaintiff’s argument that an affidavit provided by an expert in security created an issue of fact as to foreseeability, as the affidavit set forth information that was contrary to established case law. Lastly, the court declined to hold the Defendant liable based on the argument that a police presence would have prevented the Plaintiff’s stabbing, as doing so would impose an impossible burden on property owners.

If you were injured due to harmful acts committed against you while you were on someone else’s property, and have reason to believe the owner knew or should have known you would suffer harm, you may have a claim against the property owner. Determining which party is responsible for your injuries will likely require the assistance of an experienced attorney. The personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan are skilled in assisting injured parties in recovering the damages they are rightfully owed.  For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 508-822-6600.

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Who is Responsible if an Injury Occurs at a Public Space in Massachusetts? September 4, 2014, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog