Jenkins v. C.R.E.S. Mgt. LLC – Liability for Third-Party Criminal Attack

Under South Carolina premises liability laws, property owners can be responsible for injuries suffered by lawful guests at the hands of third-party criminals. It depends on the situation, of course, but in general, it’s understood that property owners owe a duty to patrons, residents and guests to make sure the site is safe from foreseeable risks. On some properties, one of those foreseeable risks is criminal activity. opendoor

The standard isn’t going to be the same for every site or for every guest, and that’s why it’s important to discuss the statutory nuances with an experienced injury lawyer. But if you have been victimized by violent crime on property that is owned by someone else, it can be worthwhile to explore. For many victims, it’s not just about receiving just compensation, but making sure the same doesn’t happen to someone else.

In the recent case of Jenkins v. C.R.E.S. Mgt. LLC, plaintiff worked as a courtesy officer for an apartment complex, which provided him with a rent-free apartment. Part of his duties included responding to reports of criminal activity on the property, verifying such reports and, if necessary, contacting the police. 

One morning, around 3 a.m., plaintiff awoke to someone pounding on his door. Believing it may be a resident in need of help, he opened the door. Two men stood in the hallway – neither of whom plaintiff recognized. One of the men aimed a handgun at plaintiff, who raised his arm in self-defense. With no explanation or warning, the man shot plaintiff in the elbow. Plaintiff fell and “played dead.”

The two men fled without ever entering the apartment. Police were unable to locate them, and the crime remains unsolved.

Plaintiff filed a premises liability lawsuit against the property owner in federal court, and the case went before a magistrate judge.

Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing defendant hadn’t proven that the assault was foreseeable in light of the property’s criminal history. Of the criminal acts that had occurred on site in the twelve months prior to the shooting:

  • 7 aggravated assaults
  • 14 residential burglaries
  • 7 motor vehicle burglaries
  • 6 thefts
  • 4 auto thefts
  • 1 sexual assault

Plaintiffs additionally presented evidence of a robbery/shooting that occurred 18 months prior to the incident.

The magistrate judge limited the “foreseeability review” to only those crimes that were violent in nature, which eliminated all the burglaries and thefts. Based on this, the judge ruled the criminal history at the site didn’t render plaintiff’s injuries foreseeable, and granted summary judgement to defense. The district court upheld this ruling over plaintiff’s objection.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth District reversed and remanded.

Although the law in Texas (where this case takes place) indicates there is generally no legal obligation to protect others from the criminal acts of third parties, those who control premises do have a duty to use ordinary care to protect those on site from an unreasonable or foreseeable risk of harm to invitees.

In order to determine foreseeability, the courts narrow the relevant criminal history and then compare that narrowed history with the crime in question based on:

  • Proximity
  • Publicity
  • Recency
  • Frequency
  • Similarity

The court noted that while it is common practice to exclude non-relevant crimes, some of those may indicate foreseeability of a personal crime. For example, burglaries at a residential apartment complex could suggest a likelihood of a violent crime there because of the level of personal intrusion.

So here, while the court didn’t make a mistake in narrowing the relevant criminal history, it did make a mistake in excluding residential burglaries from its analysis. That means there is still a question of fact as to whether the incident was reasonably foreseeable, so the case was remanded.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Jenkins v. C.R.E.S. Mgt. LLC, Jan. 26, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Grammer v. Lucking – Injury by Dog is Not Always Bite, Jan. 8, 2016, South Carolina Injury Attorney Blog

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