Premises liability is the area of personal injury law that deals with claims arising from dangerous conditions on another person’s property. The most common type of premises liability claim involves slip and fall accidents. For example, if you are shopping at the store and slip on a puddle of liquid in the middle of the aisle, the owner of the store may be liable for your medical bills and other losses arising from your accident.
Premises liability can also extend to intentional, criminal acts committed by third parties on someone’s property. This includes sexual assault. But successfully pursuing a premises liability claim for sexual assault can be tricky. Under Georgia law, property owners are not automatically liable for every criminal act that may occur on their premises. The victim still needs to prove certain elements in order to recover compensation.
The Basics of Georgia Premises Liability
The first thing you need to know about premises liability law in Georgia is that your status matters. In this context, “status” refers to your right to be on the property when the sexual assault occurred. Georgia law offers the highest degree of protection to invitees, i.e., anyone who was invited or induced to visit the property. Generally speaking, if you patronize a commercial business during its regular operating hours, you are an invitee of that business. However, if you are on the property primarily for your own purpose and not that of the owner, you are considered a licensee. For instance, if you make a social visit to someone’s home or you enter a business as a solicitor, you would likely be a licensee rather than an invitee.
A property owner has a duty of care to keep their premises in reasonably safe condition for invitees. In contrast, the owner only has a duty to protect licensees from “willful or wanton injury.” This same duty also covers trespassers, i.e., a person who is not on the owner’s property legally.
Even assuming a sexual assault victim was an invitee of the property owner, however, that alone does not establish premises liability. In these cases, a property owner can be held responsible for failing to provide adequate security for invitees on the property. But the victim must also establish that the sexual assault was reasonably foreseeable by the property owner. This does not necessarily mean the owner had to foresee the specific sexual assault of the victim. Rather, there must be some evidence to establish that sexual assault was reasonably foreseeable based on the location of the business.
For instance, if a nightclub is located in a part of Atlanta where there has been a number of recently documented sexual assaults or similar violent crimes, that could show that it was reasonably foreseeable someone might be attacked on the nightclub’s property. Similarly, if a security guard witnesses someone threatening violence against a patron, fails to intervene, and that patron is later sexually assaulted in the parking lot, the victim could have a premises liability claim against the property owner.
In general, premises liability cases involving negligent security tend to focus on steps that a property owner failed to take to protect patrons. This can include failing to provide adequate lighting in stairwells and parking lots, failing to hire and train adequate security personnel, or even not having enough security cameras to survey the property.
Georgia Supreme Court Establishes “Totality of the Circumstances” Test
A recent decision from the Supreme Court of Georgia, Georgia CVS Pharmacy, LLC. v. Carmichael, further clarified the legal standards governing premises liability in cases involving third-party criminal activity like sexual assault. The Court actually addressed a pair of cases that involved separate criminal incidents on commercial property. In one case, a man was shot in the parking lot of a drug store. In the other, a man was killed during an armed robbery at a restaurant.
In reviewing these cases, the Supreme Court explained that when determining if a criminal act was “reasonably foreseeable” for purposes of determining the property owner’s liability for these crimes, a jury had to consider the “totality of the circumstances.” Evidence of similar past crimes can certainly be useful in establishing reasonable foreseeability. But the Court said that was not the only evidence that a jury could consider. Put another way, a victim does not have to point to a past crime as an “as an essential element of reasonable foreseeability.”
The Court also clarified that a third party providing security services to a property owner may also be civilly liable for criminal acts. For instance, if a bar or nightclub hires a third-party contractor to provide security, that contractor can be sued if a patron is sexually assaulted. But the Court made it clear that the security provider’s liability existed independently of the property owner. Indeed, the property owner cannot “delegate” the legal responsibility to keep their premises in reasonably safe condition. But if the security company independently assumes a voluntary duty to provide services, they can be sued for failing to “use reasonable care in carrying out its voluntary undertaking.”
Contact Our Atlanta Sexual Assault Lawyers Today
If you can prove that a property owner or security company was negligent in failing to protect you from a sexual assault, you are entitled to seek compensation for your injuries. These damages can include your past and future medical bills–including the costs of ongoing psychiatric care–lost income due to time missed from your job, and compensation for your pain, suffering, and emotional trauma. In some cases you may also be able to seek punitive damages, which are capped at $250,000 under Georgia law.
While no amount of money can ever undo the damage of a sexual assault, holding all of the responsible parties legally accountable can help you in starting to rebuild your life. So if you need to speak with a compassionate, experienced Atlanta sexual assault attorney, contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys today to schedule a free case evaluation.