As a general rule, third-party criminal acts may be sufficiently unforeseeable to relieve the defendant of liability in a claim for negligence. That overarching principle, however, appears to be slowly eroding in Pennsylvania where a strict adherence to the Restatement (Second) of Torts recently prompted a three-judge panel of the Superior Court to conclude that a single incident of criminality on a premises triggers the possessor’s duty to generally safeguard against third-party acts.
In the case of Young v. Prizm Asset Management Company, the plaintiff filed suit against a variety of entities involved in the operation of the Steamtown Mall in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, after she sustained injuries in an attempted car-jacking that occurred in the parking garage. Specifically, the plaintiff contended that the Mall defendants unreasonably failed to prevent the attempted car-jacking even though a similar event had occurred at an adjacent leased parking lot years before she began her employment. Ostensibly taking into account the isolation of this prior incident, the Lackawanna County trial court eventually granted summary judgment in favor of the Mall defendants, noting that they had no duty to prevent an unanticipated criminal assault in an area open to members of the general public.
In the appeal to the Superior Court that followed, the plaintiff argued that the trial court had erred in granting summary judgment because the Restatement (Second) of Torts imposes liability on land possessors for “physical harm caused by the accidental, negligent, or intentionally harmful acts of third persons.” In ultimately accepting the plaintiff’s premise, the Superior Court explained further that a land possessor’s duty to protect against third-party actions is triggered by prior notice of such actions without regard to the time or place of occurrence. In fact, the Superior Court affirmed the notion that a duty to protect the entire property exists where the possessor merely “knows or may have reason to know, from past experience, that there is a likelihood of conduct on the part of third persons in general [that] is likely to endanger the safety of a visitor.” Consequently, the Superior Court found that the trial court had abused its discretion in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants and reversed for further proceedings.
Although the core concept in Young may not come as much of a shock in Pennsylvania, the facts that underlie the decision are particularly disconcerting insofar as they suggest that one criminal or unlawful act by a third-party may be sufficient to impose liability on land possessors for their failure to reasonably protect against a wide array of unrelated incidents that may occur subsequently on the premises.
Thanks to Adam Gomez for his contribution to this post. If you have any questions or comments, please email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.