Court of Appeals Reinstates Truck Driver’s Lawsuit Against Parking Lot Over Criminal Assault

Georgia property owners are required to exercise “ordinary care” in keeping their invited guests and members of the public safe. This does not mean the owner must absolutely guarantee a person’s safety. For example, under most circumstances the owner is not liable for a criminal act committed by a third party on its property. This is considered an “intervening” act that absolves the owner of any liability. However, there is an exception to this general rule when there is evidence that the criminal act itself was “reasonably foreseeable” by the owner.

Rautenberg v. Pope

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Rautenberg v. Pope, offers a useful explanation of when a crime may be considered “foreseeable.” The plaintiff in this case is a semi-truck driver. He rented a parking space for his truck from the defendant. One day, the plaintiff parked his truck in his space and retired to his sleeping cab. Sometime later, the plaintiff awoke to find “an individual at the window with a tool–a long pry bar or screwdriver.” The man quickly left. The plaintiff then exited his cab and found himself on the step of another truck that was parked beside his vehicle. The other man was driving this truck. He started to drive away–with the plaintiff “hanging on the side mirror.” Eventually, the plaintiff fell off the other truck, which proceeded to run him over twice.

The plaintiff sued the defendant, alleging its negligent security allowed the other man to attack him. The defendant moved for summary judgment. A trial judge granted that motion, holding the plaintiff failed to present any evidence of “prior substantially similar crimes” that would have placed the defendant “on notice” about the potential for criminal activity in its parking lot.

The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment and returned the case to the lower court for trial. Writing for the appeals court, Presiding Judge Sara L. Doyle noted that during pretrial depositions, the defendant’s own employees admitted there had been a number of prior “burglaries, thefts, and other property crimes” at its parking lot. Indeed, the employee said “there could have been as many as 20 prior thefts in the lot.” And in fact, “many of those break-ins had been perpetrated on the trucks parked in the rented spaces.”

More to the point, the plaintiff and his employer had initially rented the parking space from the defendant due to expectations of greater security than at a previous parking space. There was also no question that the injuries suffered by the plaintiff were “directly related to the commission of the property crime of breaking into a tractor trailer.” This was precisely the type of potential criminal activity that the defendant was on notice against, Judge Doyle observed, so a jury could find it was liable for what happened to the plaintiff.