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Third Party Liability For Criminal Acts

If you have been criminally assaulted and injured in Virginia, you may have a claim against the owner or occupier of the premises on which you were injured.  You may also have a claim against a person or entity under the right circumstances.  Experienced personal injury attorneys have been successful in holding the premises owners liable in these situations for places such as hotels, shopping malls, office buildings, gas stations, and apartment complexes.  Attorneys have also been successful in holding employers and even police officers liable.  The injuries include persons who were shot, stabbed, beaten, raped, and even murdered.  These cases are not easy to win.  If you think you may have such a claim, be sure to contact an attorney who has had success in this type of case.

In Virginia third parties can be held civilly liable for the criminal acts of others under certain conditions.  In order to establish liability there must be a special relationship between the third party and either the one who is injured, or the criminal actor.  “The necessary special relationship may be one that has been recognized as a matter of law, such as that between an innkeeper and guest, or it may arise from the factual circumstances of a particular case.”  Yuzefovsky v. St. John’s Wood Apartments, 261 Va. 97, 107, 540 S.E.2d 134, 139 (2001).  The circumstances in which a special relationship can arise are very limited.  While this list is not exhaustive, examples include innkeeper-guest (hotels, motels, etc.), common carrier –passenger (trains, buses, etc.), business owner-invitee, landlord-tenant, and employer-employee.  A.H. v. Rockingham Pub. Co., Inc., 255 Va. 216, 220, 495 S.E.2d 482, 485 (1998).  Even police officers can be civilly liable for failing to protect citizens in certain situations.  Burdette v. Marks, 244 Va. 309, 312, 421 S.E.2d 419, 420 (1992).

The special relationship establishes a duty to protect, and the type of relationship establishes what level of care the third party must exercise to carry out their duty, which in turn establishes how foreseeable the criminal act has to be.  The common carrier-passenger and innkeeper-guest relationships carry with them the highest level of care.  They are required “to use the utmost care and diligence of very cautious persons; and they will be held liable for the slightest negligence which human care, skill and foresight could have foreseen and guarded against.”  Taboada v. Daly Seven, Inc., 271 Va. 313, 326, 626 S.E.2d 428, 434 (2006) on reh’g, 273 Va. 269, 641 S.E.2d 68 (2007).  When there is a heightened duty of care there is a standard level of foreseeability.  Criminal acts need only be reasonably foreseeable to establish liability.

When there is only a standard duty of care, such as for business owners and employers, the level of foreseeability is heightened.  In order to establish liability the business owner must know “that criminal assaults against persons are occurring, or are about to occur, on the premises which indicate an imminent probability of harm to an invitee, and that in such cases this exception requires notice of a specific danger just prior to the assault.”  Thompson ex rel. Thompson v. Skate Am., Inc., 261 Va. 121, 126, 540 S.E.2d 123, 125 (2001).   The heightened foreseeability requirement is not a total bar to recovery however.

Establishing civil liability against third parties for the criminal acts of others is tough, but possible.  It all depends on the specific facts and circumstances surrounding the criminal act.  If you have been injured by a criminal act and decide to contact a personal injury attorney, contact one that has experience with this type of case.