In Bennett v. Highland Park Apartments, LLC, a woman and her minor children were tenants of an apartment complex. They were at home with a friend when around 8 pm, three people came into the apartment complex through an unguarded gate and forced their way into the apartment. The burglars asked where she kept drugs and money, and the woman and the guest were injured. The burglars left the property and were not apprehended.
The woman sued on behalf of herself and the kids against the apartment complex and the apartment manager. She claimed severe injuries and emotional and mental duress. The woman claimed she and her kids were invitees of the complex and that the complex failed in its duty to adequately and reasonably protect them as people who lived in the community. She claimed the complex failed to fix the gates, lighting, and surveillance cameras and failed to hire security guards. The complex denied it breached a duty owed to the woman or her kids or was otherwise responsible for the burglary.
The complex and manager filed motions to strike and to limit certain expert testimony. They alleged that there was no factual basis for the experts to render an opinion about causation in the plaintiff's negligent security case. The complex and manager filed a motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff responded and asked the judge to recuse himself. The trial court denied the motion to recuse and stayed the cases. It later granted summary judgment to the complex and manager.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that she had established proximate cause through appropriate expert testimony that relied on valid research methodology. She also argued that the witnesses' testimony supported a causation finding. She claimed that the state of mind of the burglars was irrelevant and that the complex and manager admitted there was an atmosphere of violence at the apartments.
The appellate court explained that expert testimony has to be both relevant and reliable. Expert testimony has to be tied to the facts of the case such that the expert testimony is grounded in methods and procedures of science, not just subjective beliefs. The plaintiff in this case relied on testimony from an expert in premises security who specialized in crime-statistics analysis. The plaintiff showed that the expert met the standards for expert testimony with regard to premises security opinions.
The appellate court explained that in a premises liability action, the first thing that had to be determined was the duty owed to the injured person. In Mississippi, a person is an "invitee" on property when he or she comes onto the property of somebody else in response to an express or implied invitation of the property owner or property occupant. The person is a licensee when he or she enters the property of someone else for convenience, pleasure, or benefit based on a license or implied permission from the property owner. The status of somebody on the premises determines what duty the property owner owes to that person. The appellate court explained that as an invitee, the landlord owed the woman a duty to keep the premises safe and that there were factual issues about whether the complex had breached its duty that made summary judgment inappropriate.
The court explained that the plaintiff had to prove duty, breach, proximate cause, and damages in order to recover for a premises liability action. Proximate cause is based on two elements: legal cause and actual cause. A defendant's negligence is an actual cause in Mississippi if "but for" a defendant's negligent conduct, an injury wouldn't have happened. Legal cause is satisfied if the event was reasonably foreseeable.
An assault is reasonably foreseeable when a defendant has actual or constructive knowledge of an assailant's violent nature or has actual or constructive knowledge of an atmosphere of violence on the premises. The plaintiff's expert had testified there were over 1,000 calls to the police, several of which involved guns. Therefore, the complex had constructive knowledge of the atmosphere of violence at the apartments. The appellate court found the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment.
If you or a loved one has been hurt due to negligent security on somebody else's property, an experienced premises liability attorney may be able to help you recover damages from the person or entity responsible for keeping the premises safe. Contact the skilled team at Coxwell & Associates, PLLC for a free consultation today.
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