Owner’s Liability for Incidents in Parking Lots

Posted on Wednesday, July 11, 2018

If you own and operate a business facility that is open to the general public, you can be held liable for a wide variety of injuries that occur on the premises. But that's not all: Civil liability for accidents, crimes or other occurrences on the business premises could extend to parking lots adjacent to the facility.

Business owners are obligated to provide a safe environment, which includes giving adequate warning when hazardous conditions exist and taking appropriate action to correct those conditions. Does a duty to warn or 

Hospital May Have Breached its Duty of Protection

Facts of the case: A nurse employed by an Oklahoma hospital arrived at work one morning and parked in the garage. There, she was  kidnapped at knife point, driven to another location in the assailant's van, and raped. The assailant was arrested and eventually convicted for these crimes.

According to court documents, the hospital parking garage is monitored by a security guard who watches thirty monitors displaying images generated by video cameras located throughout the hospital complex. On the day of the abduction, video cameras captured images of the assailant's van circling the parking garage with duct tape obscuring its tag. However, this was not observed by the security guard and no camera recorded the actual abduction.

The nurse and her husband filed a lawsuit against the hospital and the assailant. The plaintiffs argued that due to several past incidents of crime in the parking lot, the hospital should have anticipated criminal activity and provided reasonable protection against it.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the hospital and the appeals court affirmed. The case went to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which reversed the grant of summary judgment. 

The state high court questioned whether the hospital's procedures "were adequate to provide reasonable protection to its business invitees."

The facts create a "reasonable inference," the court stated, that the hospital "may have breached the duty of care that arose from its knowledge of past criminal activity in its parking garage by failing to provide reasonable protection."

The case was remanded for further action by the trial court. (Bray v. St. John Health System Inc., Supreme Ct. of Oklahoma, No. 103839, 2008)

protect patrons also extend to crimes in a parking lot near the business facility? That has been the issue in numerous lawsuits filed against privately-owned businesses after tragic incidents occur.

Courts have ruled on both sides of the issue. For example, in one case, a club was found to be liable after one of its patrons was assaulted in a parking lot used by the customers of the business.

Facts of the case: A woman was assaulted by two other women while inside a Florida club. Bouncers escorted all of the women out of the establishment. As one woman tried to go to her car in the parking lot, she was attacked by a man and the two women who had just assaulted her inside. 

The woman sustained injuries and sued the business. The court ruled in her favor, stating that the club's "duty of care to its invitees extended to the nearby parking lot."

It was a "foreseeable zone of risk," the court added, "especially when both patrons were ejected at the same time and placed in the same area." (Borda v. East Coast Entertainment, Inc., Dist. Ct. of Appeal of Florida, Fourth Dist., 2007)

However, in other cases, business owners have been found to be not liable for parking lot crime. For example, three people were shot and killed and another individual was injured outside a New Mexico convenience store and gas station. The shootings were "the product of an ongoing drug trafficking dispute," according to court documents.

A lawsuit against the business was filed by the personal representatives of the estates of two of the deceased victims and by the parents of the surviving victim. They argued the convenience store had a duty to protect the victims from the attack.

The court disagreed. "We do not believe the type of crime which is at issue in this case, specifically a sudden, deliberate and targeted shooting, is sufficiently commonplace that business proprietors should be categorically required to foresee such occurrences," the court stated.

Therefore, the convenience store did not have a duty to prevent the shooting. (Geoffrey R. Romero, et. al. v. Giant Stop-N-Go of New Mexico, Inc., Ct. of Appeals of New Mexico, 2009)

Of course, the exact nature of liability for incidents occurring on business premises, or in areas connected to the premises, depends on state and local laws. Here are some of the questions that courts generally ask when determining liability: 

Did prior criminal acts occur on or around the property?
Did the design of the parking lot or facility encourage crime? For example, is there inadequate lighting or overgrown bushes that obscure the site from view?
Was there an absence of adequate security?
Was the business owner able to foresee that an injury was likely to occur because of the conditions?
Was every reasonable precaution taken to protect patrons?

In addition to these factors, other special laws often apply to certain types of businesses, such as restaurants, taverns, bars and other facilities where alcohol is legally served. Your attorney can provide more details concerning your particular situation.

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Disclaimer: The information contained in Dulin, Ward & DeWald’s blog is provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as financial or legal advice on any subject matter. Before taking any action based on this information, we strongly encourage you to consult competent legal, accounting or other professional advice about your specific situation. Questions on blog posts may be submitted to your DWD representative.

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