Two Recent Delaware Cases Address Issue of Premises Liability

February 2012Articles In the Zone

Two recent Delaware Superior Court decisions address the issue of a property owner’s liability for injuries to third parties that occur on their premises. In Baker v. East Coast Properties, Inc., Del. Super. Nov. 15, 2011, the plaintiff rented an apartment in a complex owned by the defendant, East Coast Properties, Inc. (East Coast). The plaintiff was legally blind. Without the permission of East Coast, the plaintiff had installed a motion-sensitive alarm that was activated only if the front door to the apartment was opened. The plaintiff installed this alarm because he felt East Coast maintenance personnel were often entering his apartment without permission.

On March 13, 2009, an East Coast maintenance man and a fire technician conducting maintenance and inspections of the apartment’s fire system unlocked and opened the plaintiff’s front door, and the alarm immediately sounded.

The plaintiff testified he was startled awake by the alarm, jumped out of bed, took three steps and fell to the ground and injured his head and neck. In his action, the plaintiff asserted that East Coast’s unannounced and unauthorized entry into his apartment triggered the alarm and led to his injuries. East Coast moved for summary judgment.

The court granted the motion for summary judgment. The court noted that even if it did find the entry by the defendant was unauthorized and unannounced, the plaintiff failed to establish that his injuries were proximately caused by the defendant’s conduct. The court held that the sounding of the alarm constituted an intervening cause that relieved East Coast of liability. The court stated the plaintiff’s own contributory negligence (installing the alarm without notice to East Coast) was greater than any negligence allegedly committed by East Coast and therefore barred any recovery by the plaintiff.

In Cooper v. IHOP Restaurants, Inc., Del. Super. Nov. 9, 2011, the plaintiffs, decedent’s estate and next of kin brought an action alleging the property owners were liable for the death of a trespasser. The decedent (Jeavon Knott) was trespassing on the defendant’s property at the time of his death. The plaintiffs allege the defendants were aware of ongoing criminal activity on the premises and therefore knew or should have known that such activity could lead to injuries to the public.

The plaintiffs presented newspaper articles describing the property, a parking lot, as a popular hangout after local bars and nightclubs had closed. Additionally, the plaintiffs offered the report of a liability expert who performed a crime risk analysis for the property. This analysis revealed that between April 21, 2003, and April 21, 2006, there were 100 reported incidents of criminal conduct in the parking lot.

For these reasons, the court found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the defendants knew or should have known of ongoing criminal activities that occurred in their parking lot and, if so, whether the defendant’s conduct was recklessly indifferent or willful. The court also noted there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether Knott’s murder was reasonably foreseeable and preventable by the defendants and whether the death was a result of a superseding or intervening cause. Accordingly, the court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

For more information, please contact Michael J. Isaacs.