Generally, property owners are not liable for unforeseeable and unexpected assaults on their premises. They may, however, have a duty if the risk of harm is foreseeable. Additionally, while landowners generally do not have a duty to control the conduct of a third party, they may have a duty when they are reasonably aware that the conduct needs to be controlled, and they have an opportunity to control it. The Supreme Court in New York County recently considered whether a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center could be held liable for an alleged assault committed by one of its residents in Smith v. Arms Acres.
The defendant was a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. At the time of his injury, the plaintiff was a resident in the detox unit of the defendant’s facility. The plaintiff alleged that he was injured when a woman sitting on the floor in a hallway grabbed his ankle while he was being escorted through the hallway, causing him to fall. The plaintiff testified that he had never seen or talked to this woman before.
The defendant’s associate executive director testified that the woman was not a detox resident but was likely in that unit because of overcrowding in other areas. The facility’s rules prohibit residents from loitering in the hallways, but the associate executive director testified that the residents were generally allowed to do so if they did not get too loud.
The plaintiff filed suit against the facility and the alleged assailant. The facility moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not have a duty to protect the plaintiff from an alleged assault and that it was not the proximate cause of the injury.
A moving defendant has the burden of showing that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In this case, the defendant would need to show that it was not aware of any previous similar incidents or of any alleged violent or aggressive tendencies of the assailant that would put it on notice of a risk of an assault. The defendant here did not submit any evidence that it was not aware of any prior incidents or allegedly violent tendencies of the assailant. The defendant instead relied on the plaintiff’s testimony that he had not seen the woman before the incident.
The defendant argued that the alleged assault was unforeseeable because there were no previous incidents between the plaintiff and the woman. The court rejected this argument, noting that case law has held that incidents between an assailant and other individuals can be sufficient to put a defendant on notice of the risk.
The defendant also argued that the incident was sudden and spontaneous, so any lack of supervision was not the proximate cause of the injuries. The court noted that a defendant’s alleged negligent act or omission is not a proximate cause of an injury if the third party’s conduct is “extraordinary and intervening.” While an incident can occur so quickly that a lack of supervision cannot be the proximate cause, the court rejected that argument here. The assailant was sitting in the hallway, in violation of the policy, before the alleged assault. If the defendant had supervised her in accordance with its own policy and prevented her from sitting in the hallway, she would not have been able to trip the plaintiff. The court found that the incident could have been a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s failure to supervise the residents.
The court found that the defendant failed to meet the burden of showing it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law and denied summary judgment.
The defendant’s failure to enforce its written policy was an important part of the court’s decision here. This case illustrates the importance of a thorough discovery process in similar cases. Our New York premises liability attorney knows how to obtain the information needed.
The Law Offices of Nicholas Rose, PLLC offers free consultations. Call 1-877-313-7673 if you have been injured due to someone else’s negligence.
More Blog Entries:
England v. Brianas – High Threshold for Domestic Violence Victim’s Duty to Warn Others of Danger, July 3, 2014, New York City Injury Lawyer Blog
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