Negligent security cases are difficult to defend. The injuries can be very severe and expose property owners and their insurance carriers to large jury verdicts. Simultaneously, there is little guidance under Georgia law on what actions a property owner should take to avoid liability if they become aware of crime on their property. A hurdle for a plaintiff is whether the crime was foreseeable in light of prior substantially similar crimes on the property. When there is no evidence of the property owner’s knowledge of substantially similar prior crimes on the property, the property owner can prevail on summary judgment and avoid trial. Bolton v. Golden Bus., Inc., 348 Ga. App. 761, 763, 823 S.E.2d 371, 372 (2019), reconsideration denied (Feb. 25, 2019), cert. denied (Nov. 4, 2019). Of course, this defense is only helpful if the property owner is not aware of prior crime. Another element considered is proximate cause: whether the defendant’s actions have a causal connection to the plaintiff’s injury. Proximate cause is thorny because it often is determined by judges to be a jury issue. However, the Georgia Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Stadterman v. Southwood Realty Co. No. A21A0682, 2021 WL 4979135, at *1 (Ga. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2021) affirmed summary judgement on the issue of proximate cause, perhaps opening the way for more successful summary judgment motions based on proximate cause.
In Stadterman v. Southwood Realty Co., the plaintiff, Stadterman, was shot by an unknown shooter at an apartment complex and survived, but sustained substantial injuries. Stadterman lived at the apartment complex for approximately four months before the shooting. On the day of the incident, Stadterman was loading a bag full of dishes into his car when he accidentally set off the car alarm of another vehicle. An unknown male exited an apartment unit and accused him of trying to break into the vehicle in light of the sounding alarm. Stadterman denied doing any such thing and explained he was merely loading his car and placed his hands up to try to de-escalate the situation. The man revealed a gun. Stadterman attempted to make small talk about the gun, but ultimately turned to walk away. The unknown man shot him in the back.
The prior reported crimes at Stadterman’s apartment complex included two apartment break-ins, an armed robbery inside the property’s weight room, juvenile vandalism, complaints of loitering, and a handful of overnight car break-ins mostly involving unlocked cars.
There were several security measures taken by the defendant apartment complex, although some measures did not always work as planned. The apartment complex’s screening process for tenants included a criminal background check, a credit check, and review of their employment status. Eviction proceedings were initiated whenever a resident engaged in illegal activity on the property. There was a controlled access gate at the front of the property, however, the apartment complex admitted there was trouble with tailgating to gain access to the property. There were also times when the front gate was broken. The apartment complex personnel were present at the property 6 days per week. During workdays, the maintenance staff conducted patrols. The tenants had access to a 24-hour emergency hotline to enable emergency assistance by on-call maintenance staff. The apartment complex also recruited Clayton County police officers to live as tenants on the property for a reduced rent under a courtesy officer arrangement. The officers performed a variety of services in exchange for a reduction of half of their rent, including handing out information fliers to tenants, locking up the pool and laundry areas, and conducting patrols. Courtesy officers were expected to calm any altercations they observed on patrol. The presence of the courtesy officer’s patrol car on-site. Around the time of the incident, there was evidence that an on-site courtesy officer was not performing all of the functions expected by the apartment complex and the police patrol car was not present. The apartment complex distributed fliers to tenants when it became aware of crime. For example, after several car break-ins, a flier was sent by the apartment complex instructing tenants to remove any valuable items from their vehicles and to lock their cars overnight.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgement arguing there was no causal connection between its actions and plaintiff’s injury. Stadterman countered that the defendants’ failure to provide adequate security on the property was the proximate cause of his injuries. Specifically, Stadterman contended that the front gate was perpetually broken and that the absence of a courtesy officer had caused his injury.
The Georgia Court of Appeals held that even if the front gate was often broken, there was no evidence the shooter was able to enter the property because of a broken gate. Stadterman admitted that he was unaware of how the shooter gained access to the property. He also admitted that there was no way to know whether the gate was actually broken at the time of the incident. Even if the gate was broken, it was undisputed that the unknown man emerged from an apartment, which strongly suggested that he was visiting a tenant who granted him access. The Court held that whether a broken gate played any role in causing his shooting was purely speculative and insufficient to establish causation.
Stadterman also contended that his shooting would likely have been prevented if the defendants had employed a competent courtesy officer to deter crime on the property. The court held that even if a competent courtesy officer were employed and living in the apartment complex at the relevant time, there was no evidence that his or her duties would have included patrolling the parking lot at that particular time, much less at the precise time of the shooting. More than one witness testified that the reason to have an officer was to have a marked patrol car in the parking lot. Even if the presence of the police car might possibly have made the shooting less likely, there was no evidence to suggest that the absence of the car made the sudden violent attack more likely than not. The Court also noted that it was unclear what an officer could have done to prevent such a sudden shooting even if they had observed the altercation.
Stadterman’s failure to establish proximate cause was enough for the Georgia Court of Appeals to affirm summary judgment and not address the foreseeability argument. It will be interesting to see whether this decision is appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia. If the holding stands, the issue of proximate cause could become a more powerful defense in negligent security cases.