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When Is a Georgia Business Owner Responsible for a Criminal Act on Their Premises?

Georgia premises liability law holds property owners accountable for defective or hazardous conditions that injure members of the public. For example, if you are hurt in a slip-and-fall accident at the store due to a puddle of water in the aisle, you can sue the store’s owner for damages. In court, you would then need to prove the owner was negligent in not identifying and correcting the hazard prior to your accident.

There are also situations where a property owner can be held responsible for intentional acts committed by third parties. In other words, if you are the victim of a crime while shopping at the store or visiting a nightclub, you may have a premises liability case based on negligent security. Some of the more common examples of negligent security include a lack of working security cameras, failure to hire and train security guards, and even failure to maintain proper lighting in outdoor areas like parking lots.

Georgia Supreme Court Issues Major Ruling on Negligent Security Claims

The Georgia Supreme Court recently issued a major decision on the subject of negligent security and premises liability. The Court actually decided two separate cases together that raised certain common questions of law. The first case, Georgia CVS Pharmacy, LLC v. Welch, involved a man who was shot during an armed robbery in the parking lot of a CVS. The second case, Welch v. Pappas Restaurants, Inc., also involved an armed robbery–only in this case, the victim was shot and killed in the parking lot. His widow subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both the restaurant and the company it hired to provide security for the parking lot.

In the CVS case, a jury awarded the victim damages after finding that the store was 95-percent responsible for his injuries. The victim was found 5 percent responsible. But the actual shooter was not found liable at all. In the restaurant lawsuit, the Georgia Court of Appeals granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that the victim’s shooting “was not reasonably foreseeable,” which was a necessary element of a negligent security claim.

In accepting both cases for review, the Supreme Court noted that the law governing premises liability based on third-party criminal activity “has not plotted a clear roadmap for parties, litigators, or trial courts.” The Court agreed with the defendants in both cases that there had to be evidence that the criminal activity was “reasonably foreseeable” by the property owner. Put another way, the proprietor must be able to anticipate a crime is likely in order to have a duty to protect their patrons and invited guests.

And even when the risk of third-party criminal activity is reasonably foreseeable, the Court said that there must also be proof that the property owner “acted reasonably in the face of the particular foreseeable risk or whether the proprietor breached its duty to do so.” So a property owner is not required to absolutely guarantee their customers’ safety against even a known risk of crime. But they need to implement reasonable security measures based on the circumstances.

In general, the Court said, it is up to the trier of fact–the jury, or the trial judge if the parties elect not to have a jury–to decide if the risk of third-party criminal conduct was reasonably foreseeable. But the trial judge can decide as a matter of law that “no rational juror” could determine the risk was foreseeable. And the test for reasonable foreseeability is a “totality of the circumstances.” In simple terms, it depends on the specific facts of the case.

A jury may consider evidence of “similar past crimes” in the area. For example, if a convenience store is in a neighborhood that has experienced an unusually high number of robberies, that can prove there was a foreseeable risk of an armed robber attacking that store. The store owner would then have to take reasonable steps to secure the property and protect customers from potential criminal activity. But the Supreme Court was careful to emphasize that evidence of substantially similar crimes was not required to prove reasonable foreseeability. Again, the jury had to look at the totality of the circumstances.

Based on these principles, the Supreme Court held that in the CVS case, the jury acted within its discretion in finding that the store was liable for failing to provide adequate security in its parking lot, even though there was no evidence of prior substantially similar crimes in the area. As for the restaurant lawsuits, the Court held that summary judgment was inappropriate, as there was evidence presented that the risk of third-party criminal activity was reasonably foreseeable. Specifically, the Court pointed to evidence that the Court of Appeals excluded regarding the restaurant owner’s knowledge of prior robberies in the area.

In addition, the Supreme Court said the company that provided security services to the restaurant “may have a duty of care to third parties” based on principles of common law. While the property owner cannot delegate its own duty to keep their premises in reasonably safe condition, the Court said a security company can independently assume a “duty to use reasonable care” with respect to the services it voluntarily provides. And although the Supreme Court did not express an opinion regarding the specific facts of the restaurant case, its ruling means that the security company cannot claim categorical immunity from the wrongful death lawsuit.

Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys Today

Overall, the Supreme Court’s decision provides important clarifications with regard to premises liability and negligent security claims in Georgia. But these cases remain complex. Premises liability claims are often more complicated than victims and their families realize at first. That is why it is crucial to work with an experienced Atlanta premises liability attorney.

Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys can represent you in taking legal action against a negligent property owner or third party whose actions have left you with a stack of unpaid medical bills and related financial losses. Call us today at (404) 529-3476 to schedule a free case evaluation.

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