The Counsellor's Corner
Is a parking garage an inherently dangerous location? If it is then the owner of the garage is automatically responsible for crimes committed on the premises; if not, the owners may well not be responsible.
In this case decided by the State Supreme Court in early December, a woman identified only as Sharon P. filed a case against the owners of a garage in Beverly Hills. This is what is known as a premises liability case in which a court must decide whether or not the owner of a certain premises is or is not responsible for that which occurs on the premises.
In this matter, Sharon P. was sexually assaulted at gun point, and the State Supreme Court ruled that there was no premises liability and therefore the garage owner was not liable unless there were similar previous incidents of crime on the premises. The justices decided that if there were similar acts, that would put the owner of the premises “on notice” and therefore liable in the future. The justices decided that a different ruling would open a Pandora’s Box they did not wish to open. They opined that if they found that occurrence of violent crime in commercial parking structures is highly foreseeable as a matter of law, they would be opening the door to all types of litigation regarding what other types of property should also be deemed inherently dangerous. The Court had ruled in 1993 that landlords of commercial property generally are not liable unless similar crimes had previously occurred on the property. In 1993, the Court indicated that prior similar crimes need to have been committed in order for the owner to be liable. The Court also seemed to have in mind the high cost of doing business that the opposite ruling would have fomented in that security guards and/or security systems might have to be hired or purchased.
Justice Mosk, in dissent, said that each situation should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and in each claim, a jury should decide whether or not the owner of the property was negligent. In this case, the garage was in pretty bad shape, and in his dissent, Justice Mosk stated that, “To hold that the operator of this underground garage with its missing lights, broken security cameras, absence of supervision, and other evidence of neglect,” should bear no responsibility for its actions or lack of actions defies logic. He further indicated that this lack of logic yielded an irrational and unfair result.
At least the decision puts landlords on notice that once something untoward does occur on one’s property, one is on notice and will be held responsible for similar acts in the future.
This reminds me of the old “One Free Dog Bite” rule in which dog owners were entitled to, in effect, one free bite. They were not responsible for what their dog did until the dog bit someone, after which they were then deemed on notice that their dog had the potential to bite someone and they were responsible for damages as a result of all future bites.
This thought process makes more sense to me with dogs, which can be unpredictable, as opposed to commercial indoor garages and other pieces of property. I agree with Justice Mosk that each parking structure or piece of property ought to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, and that people ought to have the right to bring suit, whether or not there have been previous incidents. There is now absolutely no motivation for the owner of a parking structure to do anything whatsoever to keep it safe. No matter how shoddily it is maintained, no matter how dark, no matter how unsafe; until someone gets attacked, mugged, hurt, or killed, the garage owner has nothing to worry about. What kind of sense does that make, and in what possible way is that fair? I think the State Supreme Court missed the boat, or should I say the garage, on this one.
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.