Under certain circumstances, a person may have a duty to protect another individual from the criminal acts of a third party. An appeals court examined the relationship needed to establish this type of liability in a November 23, 2020, Maryland wrongful death case.
The plaintiff in the case was the wife and personal representative of the estate of her husband. The plaintiff and her late husband worked for the defendants at a non-denominational church facility, where religious groups held retreats and services. A man was brought to the facility by his mother to stay for about a month. His mother had warned the pastor of her son’s mental issues and violent behavior towards her and based on his demeanor. The plaintiff also expressed concerns to the pastor that he shouldn’t stay at the facility. One evening, the assailant sat next to the plaintiff and her late husband at a prayer service. After a few minutes, he began stabbing the plaintiff and her husband, who later died from the injuries he sustained.
The plaintiff filed suit against the facility and its owners, alleging that they were negligent in failing to provide proper safety measures on the premises, failing to supervise guests, and failing to ensure that the invitees of the retreat did not present any danger to others. After the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, the plaintiff appealed.
To establish negligence, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a duty of care to the victim, the defendant breached its duty, the breach was a proximate cause of the harm suffered, and damages. Property owners, such as the defendants in the case at issue, have a duty to use reasonable and ordinary care to keep their premises safe for invitees, such as the plaintiff and her husband, and to protect them from injuries caused by foreseeable risks that they would not discover.
On appeal, the court explained that foreseeability is the principal determinant of duty. After reviewing the evidence of record, the appeals court concluded that the assailant’s actions were not reasonably foreseeable, as there was no evidence of his propensity for violence other than vague statements from his mother that he had been physically abusive towards her.
The court went on to note that there may be a duty to protect a person from the criminal acts of a third party where there is a special relationship. This requires either a special relationship between the third party and defendant, which imposes a duty on the defendant to control his conduct, or a special relationship between the defendant and the victim, which creates a duty of the defendant to protect the victim from the third party. Finding no such relationship in the instant case, the appeals court affirmed summary judgment.
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