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.•


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. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues