When someone is injured on property belonging to another, the determination of liability is generally based on the legal theory of negligence. Property owners have a basic duty to protect anyone who visits their property lawfully. This is especially true for owners of commercial property and for employers. It is well-recognized that injuries caused by lack of maintenance or dangerous conditions are the responsibility of the property owner. However, what happens if you are injured as the result of an intentional, criminal act of a third party? Let a Joplin personal injury attorney help you with your claim.
Amie Wieland vs. Owner-Operator Services, Inc.
In a recent case out of Missouri, a woman was shot in a parking lot where she was employed as a truck insurance agent support specialist. She filed a lawsuit against her employer, Owner-Operator Services, Inc., for failing to protect her. She was shot by her ex-partner, with whom she had been having domestic problems. Her employer was aware of the stalking, harassing voicemails, and sexual assault the employee had complained about. Despite this knowledge, and the security cameras and police patrols that were available, the employee asserted in her lawsuit that her employer failed to take necessary steps to ensure her protection. A jury agreed with her and returned a verdict of $3.25 million in damages.
State law determines liability
Like much of personal injury law, each state has its own rules regarding liability for injuries and damages resulting from negligence. When it comes to premises liability, a landowner typically does not have a duty to protect others from the criminal acts of a third party. However, there can be exceptions to that rule, and those exceptions are governed by each state’s laws on this issue.
What does general premises liability depend on?
The degree of liability will also depend on whether the person who was injured had any authority to be on the property at the time of the injury. Individuals are classified as either licensees, invitees, or trespassers. An invitee is someone who was invited onto the property, usually for a business reason, such as a customer, as a member of the public, like when visiting a public park. A licensee is someone who also has permission to be on the property from the owner, but is on the premises solely for his or her own purposes. A trespasser does not have permission to be on the premises at all.
What does Missouri law say about liability for criminal acts of a third party?
Generally speaking, a Missouri business owner does not have a duty to protect business invitees from the criminal acts of an “unknown” third party because that threat is usually unforeseeable. On the other hand, when an individual who is known to be violent is on the premises that could be an exception to the rule. Another is when someone on the premises “has conducted himself so as to indicate danger and sufficient time exists to prevent the injury.” Finally, a business owner has a duty to protect invitees under “special circumstances,” that are foreseeable.
What is the “special circumstances” exception?
As any Joplin personal injury attorney can tell you, the “special circumstances” exception was the basis for liability that applied in the case of Amie Wieland. In that case, the court held that multiple factors should be taken into consideration, including specific past events, when conducting a balancing test. In doing so, the court will determine whether the incident was foreseeable. If so, then the property owner could be held liable, even for criminal acts of a third party.
The employer appealed the verdict
As expected, the employer appealed the $3.25 million verdict, arguing that it did not have a duty to protect its employee until it became aware that the third party was physically on the premises. However, the court did not agree. The “special circumstances” exception is based on foreseeability. Since the facts leading up to the shooting served as evidence that the property owner had prior knowledge of the risk, the court determined that the employer did not take proper steps to prevent a third party from committing a criminal act on the premises.
If you have questions regarding liability for injuries caused by a third party, or any other personal injury issues in Arkansas or Missouri, please contact a Joplin personal injury attorney at the Cottrell Law Office for a free consultation, either online or by calling toll-free at (888) 433-4861.
He is licensed to practice law in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, eastern Arkansas, western Arkansas, and western Missouri. He was Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Crawford County, Kansas from 1987-1989.
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