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Court Sides With Landlord Over Crime Liability

December 17, 1999|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — A woman who was raped in a commercial parking garage where no previous assaults had occurred cannot obtain compensation from the garage owner, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Because the garage in question had been crime-free for 10 years, the landlord had no duty to provide guards or other security measures, the court majority ruled as it rejected a claim by a woman who was raped in a Los Angeles garage as she left her car in the morning to go to work. A lower court had ruled that the garage owner could be held liable by a jury for injuries suffered by the woman.

Ruling 6 to 1 in favor of the garage, the court said in Sharon P. vs. Arman (SO63612) that garages are not inherently dangerous and that the sexual assault was not "sufficiently foreseeable" to impose liability on the owner.

Justice Marvin R. Baxter, writing for the court, said the garage owner should not be "saddled with the significant burden of hiring security guards," given that no assault had occurred in the garage over the prior decade.

In a separate opinion, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar objected that the court appeared to be saying that a garage owner is "entitled to one free assault before the failure to take appropriate security measures subjects him or her to the risk of civil liability."

The ruling, a victory for property owners, sends a message that even businesses that might have been thought of as inherently dangerous are not liable for criminal activity if they could not have foreseen it and had experienced no previous trouble.

That brought a sharp dissent from Justice Stanley Mosk, who complained that it "defies logic" that the garage, with its "alleged hiding places, missing lights, broken security cameras and absence of supervision," lacked a legal duty to maintain the premises in a safe condition.

Several business-oriented groups had urged the court to rule in favor of the garage, arguing that otherwise, convenience stores, all-night laundries and other businesses would have to hire security staffs to avoid liability.

"It's a reaffirmation that property owners are not liable for random societal crime just because it happens on their property," said Stephen McCutcheon, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights legal group.

UCLA law professor Gary Schwartz said the most "dramatic" holding in the ruling was not that security guards are not required but "even minimal precautions like better lighting are not required" to avoid a lawsuit.

"Obviously it is quite burdensome to have security guards, but things like better lighting are more routine," said the professor, who specializes in tort law.

The court's decision, which was similar to rulings by many other state high courts, stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a woman who worked as an accountant in a Los Angeles commercial building at Pico Boulevard and Beverly Drive near Beverly Hills. She paid a monthly fee for an assigned space in an underground parking garage at the building.

In April 1993, she arrived at her stall about 11 a.m. As she was getting out of her car, a masked assailant came up behind her. He held a gun to her head, forced her back into her car and sexually assaulted her. The rapist was never apprehended.

Lack of Security Blamed in Suit

The victim sued Arman Ltd., the owner of the premises, and Apcoa Inc., which provided parking services for Arman. She charged that the failure to provide adequate security for garage users resulted in her attack.

That same year, the California Supreme Court had ruled that property owners were not responsible for unforeseeable criminal acts on their premises.

But the court said at the time that it was not deciding whether underground parking garages, all-night convenience stores or other types of businesses that might be considered "inherently dangerous" have no legal duty to provide security guards.

Thursday's ruling, however, made it clear that an underground garage is not so inherently dangerous that security precautions are always required.

Seven bank robberies had been committed in the building above the Los Angeles garage, but those crimes had nothing to do with sexual attacks, the court said. It also cited a dearth of evidence that better lighting or a surveillance camera in the garage would have deterred crime.

"Landlords," Baxter wrote, "should not be forced to become the insurers of public safety."

Justice Werdegar agreed that the Los Angeles garage should not be held liable for the rape because there were no indications that the assault was foreseeable. But she complained that the majority relied too much on the specific absence of previous rapes at the site. The existence of prior similar attacks is relevant, but other circumstances must be considered in deciding liability, she said.

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