Premises Security Litigation: A Growing Field of Personal Injury Practice

In 1974, the singer Connie Francis was raped at knifepoint in a Westbury, Long Island Howard Johnson’s Motel room. She was hospitalized for 4 days and suffered recurring nightmares thereafter. The assailant had gained entry to her room through a defective sliding door. Even in a locked position, the motel’s sliding doors could easily be jiggled open from the outside. In a highly publicized 1976 trial, a jury awarded Francis $2.5 million in damages. At the time, it was one of the largest awards ever made in a rape case. When the decision was overturned on appeal, the lawsuit was eventually settled for $1.8 million.

In 1991, an apartment manager in Corpus Christi, Texas was found liable for $17 million after a building resident was raped. Although the resident had specifically requested a door lock that could only be opened from the inside, management refused, citing its need to gain access to all units. Six months later, the assailant broke into the management office, selected his victim from the apartment complex files, and took a key from a board where apartment keys were hanging. Also in 1991, a Ft. Worth Motel 6 settled a $10 million lawsuit for rape. Despite an ad campaign touting the motel chain’s reputation for safety, management failed to provide nightly security guards as promised. According to the deposition of a former Motel 6 security executive, the chain had averaged a rape a month from 1987-1990.

Negligent Security Claims Are Growing

Hotels and motels often conceal the amount of crime occurring on their premises, and these incidents are not widely reported. But although premises security litigation was quite rare in 1974, it is now among the fastest growing areas in personal injury practice. In fact, claims alleging faulty security are beginning to rival general negligence and slip and fall cases as the most common causes of action against residential landlords and property owners. Over the past decade, the average verdict in favor of plaintiffs against landlords was over $1 million for assault victims, $1.8 million for rape victims, and $2.1 million in favor of an estate for a wrongful death action. The average settlement amount in premises security lawsuits is an astonishing $500,000.

Victims of inadequate premises security are no longer willing to rely on the criminal justice system as their sole recourse. In turn, civil courts are demonstrating greater flexibility in permitting lawsuits based not only on negligence, but on grounds like breach of warranty and consumer fraud. Where criminal acts are committed by building employees against residents, an increasingly common legal theory is negligent hiring and retention, i.e. failure by employers to do thorough background checks of potential employees.

About Premises Security Ligitation

Property managers, landlords, security companies and colleges are frequent targets of premises security litigation. Among the most likely venues for crimes leading to such lawsuits are parking lots, apartments, retail stores, especially shopping malls, and exterior common areas, bars, hospitals, colleges and day care centers.

The actual wrongdoer in a premises security case is not the landlord or business owner but the person who committed the crime. Previously, courts were reluctant to hold landowners liable for criminal acts committed by a 3rd party because such conduct was not foreseeable. More recently, however, courts have been more liberal as to the nature of evidence required to show a landlord knew or should have known a crime might occur on the premises. Certainly, courts have expanded the concept of special relationships that give rise to a duty to create and maintain safe conditions. The relationship between landlord and tenant and business owner and patron is now commonly deemed sufficient to confer a duty to provide protection.

The mere commission of a crime is not sufficient to show a breach of duty. Plaintiffs must demonstrate that the landlord or business owner failed to provide an adequate level of security. In premises security lawsuits, claims most frequently arise from broken door locks, defective intercom systems, poorly trained or negligently hired security guards, and insufficient lighting of parking lots.

If you are injured due to faulty security, consult a knowledgeable personal injury attorney as soon as possible. It will be necessary to ensure that evidence is preserved and that claims are filed in a timely fashion.