Property Owner Liability in Sexual Assault Cases

Many sexual assaults would not occur if a landowner (e.g., an apartment complex, hotel, or other business) had not created the proper environment for such an incident.  Common examples include gates that don’t work, burned-out lights that create a dark parking lot, or insufficient security guards to properly police a large crowd.  The law recognizes the relationship between environment and act, which is why property owners are often responsible for damages in these situations.

Such damages normally include money for both tangible losses, such as medical bills, and intangible losses, such as pain and suffering.  In some cases, punitive damages may be available as well.

Duty of Care

The first step in obtaining compensation against a landowner is to determine what legal obligation, if any, said landowner had.  In Georgia and many other states, the nature of the duty depends on the nature of the relationship between landowner and victim.

  • Invitee: If the victim’s presence conveyed an economic or noneconomic benefit on the landowner, or a potential benefit, the victim was an invitee. In these cases, the landowner must ensure that the property is reasonably safe.
  • Licensee: People whose presence on the land is not offensive to the landowner, although they received no express or implied invitation, are licensees. Guests of hotel guests are a good example.  If the victim is a licensee, the owner has a duty to warn about any latent (nonobvious) defects.  The aforementioned burned-out light is a latent defect during the day and an obvious defect at night.
  • Trespasser: If the victim has no permission to be on the land, the owner has no duty. Tales of injured burglars who sue the homeowner for damages are essentially urban legends.

If the victim was a child trespasser or a foreseeable trespasser, liability may still attach under the attractive nuisance rule or the frequent trespasser rule.

Knowledge

The landowner must have actual or constructive knowledge (knew or should have known) about the defect which caused damages.

Direct evidence includes repair invoices, inspection reports, and other “smoking guns.”  Under Anjou v. Boston Elevated Railway Company, circumstantial evidence is admissible to establish constructive knowledge.  Essentially, the longer the defect existed, the more likely it is that the owner had constructive knowledge.

Third-Party Acts

Commonly, landowners deny liability in these situations, claiming that the assailant was solely responsible for damages.  That’s simply not the case.  Under Sturbridge Partners v. Walker, if a “substantially similar” event had occurred on or near the owner’s property, the owner is a responsible third party.

Victim/plaintiffs need only establish substantial similarity by a preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not.

Landowners may be jointly responsible for sexual assault, sexual battery, rape, or other wrongs that occur on their property because of inadequate security.  For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney, contact Butler Tobin.  We do not charge upfront legal fees in tort cases.