Convenience Store in High-Crime Area Not Liable for Attack on Customer

The typical premises liability claim involves a customer who is injured slipping and falling in the aisle of a store. In such cases, the legal question is whether or not the store owner breached its legal duty to keep its premises “in a reasonably safe condition” for invited members of the public. The owner is not, however, required to absolutely guarantee a patron’s safety.

ABH Corporation v. Montgomery

In some cases, a store owner’s duty may extend possible criminal acts that occur on its premises. But this can be much trickier to prove than a simple slip and fall. This is because the victim must prove that the store owner had “reason to anticipate” the criminal act and failed to exercise “ordinary care” to protect the public. The mere fact that a crime occurred, or even that the neighborhood may be considered more prone to criminal activity, is not enough to establish the store owner’s legal liability.

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, ABH Corporation v. Montgomery, helps to illustrate this point. The plaintiff in this case went to a local gas station and convenience store owned by the defendant. The store was in the plaintiff’s neighborhood, so he knew the area well.

As the plaintiff tried to enter the store, a man asked him for money. The plaintiff said he had no money and entered the store. When the plaintiff exited the store, the same man asked him a second time for money. The plaintiff again refused and clarified, “I don’t have any money for you.” While the plaintiff walked backed to his car, the man and several others proceeded to rob and attack the plaintiff.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant, alleging it failed to keep its premises safe. The defense moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion but allowed the defendant to file an immediate appeal.

That appeal proved successful. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals held the defendant was entitled to summary judgment. Basically, the appellate court said the plaintiff could not establish that the store’s management had “superior knowledge” of “previous substantially similar crimes” in the area that would have made the attack on the plaintiff a “foreseeable” risk.

Although there were a number of 911 calls made regarding the store prior to the attack on the plaintiff, the Court of Appeals said these reports were too “vague” to actually prove the defendant had knowledge of specific criminal activity in the area. More to the point, the plaintiff himself “knew about the criminal element surrounding the store,” having lived in the area for approximately 15 years. Indeed, the plaintiff worked at a nearby barber shop, where he routinely witnessed criminal activity. Given this, he could not show the defendant had “superior knowledge” of any risk.

For similar reasons, the Court of Appeals also rejected the plaintiff’s allegations that the defendant’s failure to keep its premises safe created a public “nuisance.” A nuisance claim requires proof that the defendant had some “notice or knowledge of the alleged defect.” Once again, the Court said the plaintiff could not prove such knowledge existed.

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