Know What Protection for Patrons Means During Travel Season – and Beyond

December 29, 2015 by Matthew G. Hawk, Associate

Businesses such as hotels, motels, restaurants, and bars have long owed heightened duties to their customers. The basic rule is that the owner or operator of a hotel or restaurant has a duty to exercise reasonable care for the protection of its patrons. Courts have noted, however, that the business is not required to guarantee the safety of those patrons. The business is also not liable for the conduct of third parties on its premises which injures a patron unless the owner or operator has notice of the danger involved as well as an opportunity to protect against that danger.

 Cases frequently arise where a patron is attacked on business property by a stranger or room invader. The same analysis applies to cases where one patron attacks another, however, regardless of the fact that the assailant had as much of a right to be on the property as the victim. In all cases of assaults or other crimes against patrons, the “reasonable care” taken by the business is usually synonymous with the adequacy of the security measures employed to prevent such attacks. Courts often analyze the reasonability of the care taken by the business as two separate factors: the foreseeability of the injury, and the adequacy of the steps taken by the business to protect its patrons.

 Foreseeability questions often hinge on the knowledge the business had or should have had of similar crimes on or near their property. Parties to litigation frequently offer statistical evidence of local crime rates to demonstrate that they should or should not have known of the threat of a particular type of event. Such data are subject to interpretation, however; some cases have interpreted “similar” crimes to be virtually any type crime, with violent and non-violent crimes being considered collectively. Other cases have insisted that only crimes of exactly the same type are “similar crimes”, and only look to the businesses’ knowledge of, for example, other armed robberies in the area when the plaintiff was a victim of an armed robbery. How physically near the business other crimes must be to trigger foreseeability can also be variable; some courts have held that even very similar crimes which are committed off the business premises and against persons other than patrons of the business have no bearing on foreseeability.

While often structured as two questions, foreseeability and adequacy of security are intertwined, because the sufficiency of security is often directly related to the foreseeability of the danger. Security cameras covering a parking lot, with nothing more, may be sufficient if the lot is in a low-crime area and there have been no prior robberies on or near the property. On the other hand, if there is such a history, security patrols or restricted-access parking may be called for. Interestingly, courts have also held that patrons of more expensive hotels are entitled to expect better security measures than cheaper lodgings. What is clear is that the adequacy of security measures is an extremely fact-intensive inquiry.

 One other cautionary note for businesses is that their liability does not always end at the boundaries of their property. This is particularly true where the business causes or contributes to the danger. For example, in one case a bar was held liable for inadequate security in a nearby parking lot which they did not own. The factors leading the court to find liability were that the bar was invariably crowded on the weekends, and the business owners knew that patrons used the neighboring parking lot for overflow parking. In another case, a club was held liable for an assault in an alley off their property when they ejected two fighting patrons at the same time, and one carried the fight into the alley. Businesses must be careful not only to provide reasonable security measures on their property, but also ensure that they act consistently with the safety of customers as those customers are coming or going.

 If you would like more information on the foregoing, do not hesitate to contact Matthew G. Hawk in our Tallahassee office at (850) 222-8121.

  Matthew G. Hawk, Associate
  (850) 222-8121