WHAT DUTY DOES A PROPERTY OWNER OWE A PASSERBY TO PREVENT AN ATTACK BY THIRD PARTIES?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Gardin v. Emporia Hotels, Inc., 31 Kan. App. 2d 168, 61 P.3d 732 (2003).
This case addresses the following issue:
What duty does a motel owe a passerby to prevent an attack by third parties?
The duties a business owes to its patrons is well defined under Kansas law: to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances. Id. at 171. This case asked what duty a motel owed to a passerby, particularly if the motel should take precautions to protect passersby from criminal acts. Id. The court ultimately determined that a business does have an obligation to refrain from willful, wantonly, or recklessly a passerby, but under these facts that did not constitute any duty to protect from criminal acts of third parties. Id. at 174.
Plaintiff was having drinks with a friend at a bar near Defendant hotel. Id. at 169. After the bar closed at 2 a.m., Plaintiff and a friend were invited back to Defendant hotel by some women they had been dancing with. Id. The women entered the room, and a man exited telling Plaintiff and his friend to beat it. Id. Plaintiff began to try to leave, when men appeared and began threatening him. Id. Plaintiff ran toward the lobby of the motel. Id. The doors were locked, but Plaintiff got the attention of the desk clerk. Id. The desk clerk refused to open the door, and Plaintiff was stabbed by one of the men. Id. This was the first criminal act at the motel since 1998. Id.
The court began by noting that, absent a special relationship, there is no duty prevent any criminal acts by third parties. Id. at 171. One common special relationship is that of an innkeeper and a guest. Id. at 172. However, Plaintiff could not evoke this exception for two reasons. Id. First, Plaintiff was not a guest of the motel, nor did he have any interest in renting a room at the time of his injury. Id. But even aside from that fact, Defendant had no reason to suspect the assault would occur. Id. The motel had been crime free for several years, and even the 1998 crime was simply a non-violent theft. Id. Thus, this special relationship offers no assistance for Plaintiff here. Id.
Another special relationship can exist based on a property owner who holds property open to the public. Id. However, Kansas limits this relationship based on whether the individual is a trespasser or a welcome visitor. Id. at 173. An individual is a trespasser when he has no permission to be on the property. Id. When the individual is a trespasser, the property owner only needs to refrain from willfully, wantonly, or recklessly harming the trespasser. Id. This duty could, under appropriate circumstances, include steps to prevent criminal acts, such as providing adequate lighting. Id. at 175. However, the key again is the crime being foreseeable and the threat being known. Id.
Here, Plaintiff was a trespasser. Id. Thus, Defendant only needed to refrain from willfully hurting Plaintiff. Id. Though Plaintiff had asked the clerk to let him in, the totality of the circumstances did not suggest the clerk should have known there was a serious threat to Plaintiff. Id. In fact, the clerk had called the police, which, based upon what the clerk knew, was sufficient enough. Id. Thus, Plaintiff as a trespasser, could not maintain a claim against Defendant for the injuries he sustained from a third party. Id.