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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. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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