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Executive Summary

Violent Crime has increased dramatically in the United States in the past 50 years. Many premises liability cases involve violent crimes that could have been prevented if the landowner had taken the appropriate precautions based on industry standards. Foreseeability is important in determining whether violent crime could have been predicted based on past violent events. This information is easily obtained due to advances in computer technology. The public can now access this information in most locations throughout the United States.

Background:

Violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) in the United States has increased 493% from 1960 through 2011. The population has increased 174% during the same period.

FBI Crime Clock for 2011:

One Murder every 36 minutes.
One Forcible Rape every 6.3 minutes.
One Robbery every 1.5 minutes.
One Aggravated Assault every 42 seconds.
One Burglary every 14.4 seconds.
One Larceny Theft every 5.1 seconds.
One Motor Vehicle Theft every 44.1 seconds.

Elements of Adequacy of Security Claim:

  1. The owner of the land owed a legal duty of care to the occupant.
  2. Violent crime was foreseeable on the property.
  3. The owner failed to conform to a reasonable degree of care.
  4. The plaintiff was damaged.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska in C.S. v. Sophir stated, "A possessor of land who holds it open for business purposes is under a duty of care to protect his patrons."

Foreseeability:

One way to approach the issue of foreseeability is to look for a history of criminal incidents on the property or surrounding area. This has become known as the "prior similars" rule. This rule determines that unless crimes of a similar nature to the one in question have happened on the property within several years prior to the incident, foreseeability is not present and liability cannot exist under the law.

For example, if a female is raped in an apartment complex where there have been prior similar acts over the past year, then foreseeability is present. Of course, with the advent of computerized crime statistics, almost anyone can obtain these statistics and determine whether they want to live in a low, moderate or high crime area. Landowners can do the same and should have a system for their tenants/customers to report crimes that appropriate security measure can be taken.

Case Examples:

1. A young single female who is looking for an apartment finds a complex that she likes. During the application process, she asks if the complex is a safe location. She is told that the complex is very safe so signs a one year lease. A few months after she moves in, she is returning to her apartment in the early morning hours when she is attacked, forced into her apartment, and raped. She files a premises liability lawsuit charging the landowner with negligence. The discovery process discloses that there had been a murder at the complex just prior to when she moved in. She wins the lawsuit and is awarded a large judgment.

2. A young female obtains a job in a small strip mall where she is the only employee present. She is given no security training, no video cameras, and no means to notify anyone of an emergency except for the phone. One day, a large man comes into her employment location and walks around, says nothing, and leaves after a few minutes. She has a "bad feeling" about this encounter so calls her supervisor to tell her what has happened. The supervisor tells her it was nothing and not to worry. The next day the man returns and murders the young employee. Her family sues the landowner and anyone else associated with the business. It is determined during the discovery process that the landowner and others did not meet industry standards and practices for this type of business. The family is awarded a huge settlement.

Conclusion:

It is incumbent on land owners to protect their tenants and customers from violent crime. They need to determine if violent crime is foreseeable on their property and if they are in a low, medium, or high crime area. They also need to have a system for tenants and customers to report violent crime to them. If a property is located in a moderate to high crime area, then the landowner may be sued for negligence if someone is injured by a third party and the landowner did not meet industry standards for security.

Potential customers and tenants should also check crime statistics which are easily available in most areas of the country. They can then make an informed decision about visiting that area. A popular show about real estate called, "International House Hunters", depicts prospective customers going to foreign countries to look for vacation or permanent homes. One show took place in a tropical area that looked like paradise but each property the potential buyers were shown had bars on the windows and doors. This was a red flag that this might not be an area where you would want to live. The same applies to similar properties in the United States. Take a proactive approach and do not rely on what someone tells you about the safety of an area where you travel or might consider residing.

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Dan L. Vogel is Forensic Consultant Expert Witness based in Oklahoma City. He has 27 years of Federal law enforcement experience and has testified as an expert in Federal and state court. Pro Bono work is performed on a case by case basis. He is currently a member of the Consulting Committee, The American Investigative Society of Cold Cases. dvogel1@cox.net

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