California court holds that owners and operators have duty to take reasonable precautions to protect patrons from criminal acts, even absent criminal activity.
This recent decision from a California appellate court is certain to worry that state’s commercial real estate community. Sharon P. v. Arman, Ltd., et. al. The plaintiff in this case, Sharon P., was attacked and sexually assaulted at gun point in the subterranean parking garage of the office building in which she worked. She sued the property owner, Arman, Ltd. and the operator of the parking facility, Apcoa, Inc. (hereafter, Arman and Apcoa together are referred to as the "Owners".) The trial court ruled for the Owners, finding that they did not owe a duty of care to Sharon P, and she appealed.
On appeal to the Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 3, California, the Owners argued that they did not owe Sharon P. a duty to make the garage more secure because the attack was not reasonably foreseeable. They pointed out that there had not been any prior similar criminal activity in the parking facility or in the nearby environs, although there had been some bank robberies. Sharon P. offered much evidence about the poor general condition of the garage and how it’s upkeep generally had deteriorated prior to her attack.
The existence of a duty of care and its scope are determined on a case-by-case basis by the court. A fundamental principle of negligence law is that "Every one is responsible, not only for the result of his willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself." A host of other factors are considered by a court evaluating such cases, one of which is the foreseeability of the harm to the plaintiff. Several prior California cases dealing with similar circumstances have hinged on the issue of foreseeability, in particular, whether other criminal acts have occurred on the property or in the surrounding neighborhood.
In Sharon P., the court stated that "the peculiar characteristics of commercial parking garages...increases the likelihood of many types of criminal activity and thus increases the foreseeability of crime in general." Finding parking garages to be inherently dangerous places, it reversed the lower court. It held that there was a high degree of foreseeability that patrons of the Owners’ parking facility "might become victims of third person criminal assaults, such as robberies, shootings, rapes, or some other form of physical aggression." Further, it held that specific evidence of previous similar criminal misconduct is not necessary in order to find that the Owners have a duty to take reasonable security measures to protect patrons from criminal acts. The court remanded the case to the lower court to decide whether the Owners had met their duty of care to Sharon P., and if not, whether their breach of that duty was a substantial factor in her injuries.
Sharon P. v. Arman, Ltd., 945 P.2d 779, 68 Cal. Rptr. 2d 474 (Cal. 1997), rev'd, 91 Cal. Rptr. 2d 35, 989 P.2d 121 (Cal. 1999). To read a summary of this decision, click here.
UPDATE on Sharon P. v. Arman, Ltd.
The Supreme Court of California recently overruled a decision previously reported in the September 1998 The Letter of the Law. [Click here to read the summary of the earlier decision and the case facts.] To briefly summarize, a California appellate court ruled that building owners and operators have a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect patrons from criminal acts, even absent prior criminal activity on the premises. In this case, the owners of a parking garage were found liable for an assault in their garage because such an attack should have been foreseeable to the owners, even though no criminal activity had taken place on the premises for ten years.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of California reversed the appellate court and ruled in favor of the parking garage owners. The court ruled because there had never been any criminal activity in the garage or any similar crimes within the surrounding area in the garage's ten year history, it was not foreseeable to the garage owners that a third-party criminal attack would occur in the garage. Therefore, the owners had no duty to take extra security precautions to protect users of the garage. The court ruled that the appellate court's ruling would have essentially required the garage owner and other property owners to become insurers of the public safety, which the court stated was against the public policy of California. Thus, the court affirmed the trial court's ruling in favor of the garage owners, reversing the appellate court.
Sharon P. v. Arman, Ltd., 91 Cal. Rptr. 2d 35, 989 P.2d 121 (Cal. 1999).