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DTCI: Existing duty is prerequisite of negligence

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DTCI-Gould-KatherineRTo prevail on a claim of negligence, a plaintiff must show that a duty exists, that the duty was breached, and that damages resulted from that breach. It goes without saying that there can be no negligence or liability where there is no duty.

The Indiana Supreme Court considered the question of duty this summer in Kroger Co. v. Plonski, 930 N.E. 2d 1 (Ind. 2010). Specifically, it examined the duty business owners owe to their invitees to protect them against foreseeable criminal acts and the evidence they must present to the court for it to determine whether the duty exists.

The law is well settled that “[l]andowners have a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect their invitees from foreseeable criminal attacks.” Paragon Family Rest. v. Bartolini, 799 N.E.2d 1048, 1052 (Ind. 2003). The court recognized that the more challenging inquiry is whether, in a given case involving business owners and invitees, the particular element of duty has been met. This is so because although reasonable foreseeability is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury to decide, in the context of duty, reasonable foreseeability is determined by the court because it is a question of law. The court considers the “totality of the circumstances” in its duty analysis. Delta Tau Delta v. Johnson, 712 N.E.2d 968, 972-73 (Ind. 1999); Vernon v. Kroger Co., 712 N.E.2d 976, 979 (1999); L.W. v. W. Golf Ass’n., 712 N.E.2d 983, 984-85 (Ind. 1999). “More precisely, the court must examine ‘all of the circumstances surrounding an event, including the nature, condition, and location of the land, as well as prior similar incidents to determine whether a criminal act was foreseeable.’” Plonski, 930 N.E.2d at 7 (citing Delta Tau Delta, 712 N.E.2d at 972).

In Plonski, the plaintiff filed suit against Kroger after she was assaulted in the parking lot while loading groceries in the car. The store filed a motion for summary judgment based in part that it owed no duty to the plaintiff because the assault was not reasonably foreseeable.

Kroger, the moving party in the summary-judgment action, had the burden of demonstrating that as a matter of law the criminal assault on the plaintiff was not foreseeable. The only evidence Kroger designated to support its motion was the affidavits of its risk manager and safety manager. Both managers asserted that the store was located in a part of the city that had a reputation for low levels of criminal activity. The safety manager also stated that during the two-year period preceding the incident, there had only been one incident that could be considered violent criminal activity. Plonski, 930 N.E.2d at 7-8.

The court stated that the single event occurring within two years of plaintiff’s assault did not necessarily support the view that the criminal act on Kroger’s premises was foreseeable. Yet, the assertion concerning the area of the city and its reputation for minimal criminal activity was unpersuasive because it offered no insight as to the reasonable foreseeability of a criminal attack in the particular parking lot where the assault occurred. The court held that summary judgment was inappropriate because the materials Kroger designated did not satisfy the burden of demonstrating that criminal activity on its premises at the time of the plaintiff’s assault was unforeseeable. Thus, the plaintiff did not need to offer evidence to the contrary.

It appears this was a case in which affidavits simply did not include enough information to necessitate a finding of summary judgment in favor of Kroger. Further, if parties present only evidence concerning the reputation of the area surrounding the business where the attack occurred, they will not persuade the court to grant summary judgment in their favor.•

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Katherine R. Gould is an associate in the Indianapolis office of LewisWagner. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

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