Those who own and control property in Georgia have a legal responsibility to exercise care to protect those invited on site from unreasonable risk of harm. This includes things like keeping walkways clear and dry, repairing holes in the parking lots, making sure items on store shelves are safely stacked and stairways are in reasonably good shape. When fixes aren’t immediately feasible, property owners need to warn guests.
This legal concept, as outlined in OCGA §51-3-1, is called premises liability. It applies to anyone who directly or impliedly invites others onto the site for lawful purposes (i.e., to shop, enjoy a meal, attend a concert, sleep for the night, etc.). The standard owners must abide in keeping their property and approaches safe is “ordinary care.” When they don’t use ordinary care, they can be held liable (legally responsible) to pay for the resulting damages if someone is hurt.
What surprises some people is this duty can also extend to criminal acts committed by a third party – even if the landowner wasn’t a participant and had no prior knowledge of what would take place. Failure to do so generally falls under the umbrella of a legal theory known as “negligent security.”
What is Negligent Security?
Sometimes premises liability and negligent security are referred to interchangeably. However, as our Atlanta personal injury attorneys can explain, negligent security is a very specific type of premises liability. What typically sets negligent security apart from a typical premises liability case is that injury is the direct result of third-party violence.
Usually, third parties aren’t responsible for someone else’s criminal conduct. However, the game changer – at least in terms of civil liability – is when the criminal act is predictable and preventable with the aid of adequate security measures.
As noted in the 1997 Georgia Supreme Court ruling in Sturbridge Partners, Inc. v. Walker, simple fact of a violent attack doesn’t automatically mean resulting injuries will be compensable. A key factor is foreseeability. That is, landlords aren’t expected to see the future or “guard against imagined dangers.” Rather, this duty of care extends only to criminal acts that are foreseeable.
Not all establishments will be held to the same standard, which is why negligent security cases are so complex. For instance, a grocery store will have different security needs than a nightclub or hotel or ATM.
Some examples of security measures may include:
- Working security cameras;
- Security guard on duty;
- Contracted security detail;
- Doors, locks, gates, windows and fences that are secure;
- Adequate lighting;
- A working security alert system.
Sometimes, the issue of foreseeability can stem from the nature of the business itself. For example, owners/ operators of an ATM site can presume there exists a dangerous potential for robberies late-at-night, so security measures can be enacted on that basis. Other times, foreseeability is based on prior similar acts, either at that location or in the nearby vicinity. For instance, if a nightclub has repeated problems with violence by patrons, as evidenced by numerous calls to police or arrests, there may be a strong argument in a subsequent injury case that security was inadequate.
Negligent Security Weighed by Georgia Supreme Court
A prominent negligent security case was weighed recently by the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld a $35 million damage award to a man brutally assaulted at a bus stop near an amusement park. A man sustained permanent, life-altering injuries in a brutal attack at a bus stop, just outside an amusement park. He sued his four attackers, but also the park for negligent security.
Jurors awarded him $35 million, with the park being 92 percent responsible for what happened. The state supreme court affirmed the finding of liability, noting the jury was authorized to find the park breached its duty to exercise ordinary care in keeping the site safe for invitees. The attackers were part of a larger group who had been roaming the park, threatening other patrons throughout the day. Security admonished them, but then allowed them to go back into the park. Some in the group were employees of the park, many of whom, evidence revealed, were gang members. The attack that resulted in injury started while all parties were still on site at the park, and the fact that plaintiff stepped outside the property boundaries to get away from his attackers didn’t extinguish their liability.
The foregoing answer is not legal advice and is merely a general overview. You are advised to consult a lawyer to address your specific situation. For more information or to inquire about a free consultation, contact Stephen D. Apolinsky, an experienced Atlanta wrongful death attorney, at Apolinsky & Associates at (404) 377-9191 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.