A recent Georgia premises liability and wrongful death case shows how apportionment law can complicate a solid case.
The victim was murdered in the parking lot of a gated community. His wife sued the condominium complex and its security firm for negligence in failing to keep the premises safe despite numerous prior shootings. Remember that under Georgia law a property owner or manager is only liable for the third party crime if there were prior similar crimes enough to put the owner or manager on notice of the likelihood of more violence.
The case went to trial against the condominium association and security firm, and the jury found for the spouse, awarding her more than $3 million in damages for wrongful death.
Fault was apportioned among the defendants, with 25% of the fault apportioned to the condominium, 25% to the security firm, and the remainder against the assailants who’d murdered the victim. The condominium association argued that it should only be 25% to blame instead of also owing the 25% apportioned to the security company under a vicarious liability for a non-delegable duty theory as argued by the plaintiff.
The condominium appealed the trial court’s decision to deny its motion for a directed verdict and the trial court’s decision to find it liable for the security company’s share of fault. The wife cross-appealed the trial court’s decision before trial not to stop the condominium from arguing it wasn’t legally responsible for its security firm and the security guard, and she also appealed the denial of her motion to prevent the apportionment of fault between the condominium and security firm.
The case arose when the condominium board became worried about how much crime was occurring in and around the community and took steps to provide greater security. The security firm was hired to provide all-hours security at the front gate. The victim had bought items at another location and the seller tipped off a criminal that the victim had money. They followed the decedent for 20 miles. The security guard let them come into the gated condominium community and the three men shot the victim while robbing him.
On appeal, the condominium argued that the evidence showed it hadn’t breached a duty to the decedent under OCGA § 51-3-1. It claimed that the crime wasn’t foreseeable and that it didn’t have superior knowledge of the risk that caused the decedent’s death. The appellate court explained that to recover compensation in a premises liability claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant knew or should have known about the danger and that the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the danger, in spite of his ordinary care, due to actions or conditions within the owner’s control.
Usually, an intervening crime insulates a property owner from liability, but not if the crime was foreseeable. To be considered foreseeable, the crime in question must be substantially similar to earlier criminal activities. The wife had presented evidence of many prior crimes nearby and inside the complex, including the armed robbery of a security guard and the attempted armed robbery of a residence inside the complex. The CEO of the condominium was personally aware of four incidents, and he once had to duck behind a car to avoid being shot. This was why they hired the security firm and took other security measures. The appellate court found this was sufficient to support a finding that the prior criminal activity made the incident reasonably foreseeable. The complex didn’t present evidence to show that the victim knew of the prior criminal activity. Instead, they argued that he’d been identified as a robbery victim at a parking lot where he bought electronics. The appellate court found that a crime doesn’t have to originate on the property in order to hold an owner liable.
The appellate court also reasoned that the condominium complex had a personal and non-delegable duty to use reasonable care to keep the premises safe, and if a wrongful act were a result of a violation of this non-delegable duty by the security firm, the condominium would be vicariously liable for it.
However, it found that the jury might have faulted the condominium only based on a nuisance theory, and imposing fault on the security firm under common law negligence in that case would be totally independent of the complex. Therefore, it found that the trial court had made a mistake in imposing liability on the condominium for the security firm’s portion of fault. This aspect of the judgment was vacated, and the case was sent back to the lower court to enter judgment in accordance with the jury verdict.
This case is also important in that it shows that just because criminals targeted you off sight and followed you onto the premises, the complex still owes you a duty of reasonable security measures after they are on notice.
The Atlanta wrongful death attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have considerable experience representing families who have lost their loved ones due to negligence and other wrongful conduct, and they are prepared to assist you with a possible claim. Indeed, if you believe you have a possibly meritorious claim and would like to discuss the options you may have for legal recovery, feel free to contact us to arrange a free case consultation.
Georgia Federal Judge Denies New Trial in Tractor Trailer Accident Case, Atlanta Injury Attorney Blog, published February 15, 2016
Georgia Federal Court Sanctions Defendants for Failing to Preserve Driver’s Records in Tractor-Trailer Accident Case, Atlanta Injury Attorney Blog, published May 11, 2016