Supreme Court of Appeals in West Virginia Reverses Trial Court’s Dismissal of Premises Liability Case

In any personal injury suit involving a claim of negligence, the injured party must be able to prove that the allegedly negligent party owed them a duty of care, which is why injury victims should always hire a West Virginia personal injury lawyer to help them prove their case. In many cases, that duty of care is easily identifiable – such as a shop owner who has a duty to ensure that the walkways in his store are clear of debris and wet spots so that his patrons do not slip or trip. However, a recent case from the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia addressed this issue, and it gives us some guidance about the obligations of store owners to maintain the safety of people around their property.

972344_the_building.jpgMeans v. Kanawha Pizza, LLC pits an employee against his former employer. Plaintiff worked in Defendant’s Domino’s Pizza in Charleston, West Virginia, and one evening after work, he was assaulted and beaten by two criminals as he walked to his car which was parked behind the restaurant. Plaintiff was also shot in the leg during the assault, but the two men who attacked him escaped and were never found by the authorities. After the incident, Plaintiff filed suit against his employer, alleging that Defendant had a duty of care to take precautions to prevent violent conduct around its premises, and that it had carelessly and recklessly breached its duty by failing to take adequate measures to make the area safe. Plaintiff also claimed that Defendant was aware of and had observed criminal activities, fights, and robberies occur in the immediate area of the Domino’s Pizza, and that as a result of Defendant’s failure to enact proper security measures he became the victim of a criminal act and was injured.

In response to Plaintiff’s claims, Defendant filed a summary judgment motion to dismiss the lawsuit under West Virginia Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that Plaintiff had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Defendant argued that there is no law in West Virginia that creates a duty for land owners to protect people from attacks on property adjacent to the property they own. The trial court agreed with Defendant and dismissed the claims. Plaintiff then appealed the lower court’s decision.

On appeal, the Court stated that prior case law held that there were exceptions to the general rule that a landowner generally does not have a duty to protect against the deliberate criminal conduct of third parties. However, if a party’s omissions have exposed another to a foreseeable high risk of harm from a third party’s intentional misconduct, a duty of care may be established. In reversing the trial court’s dismissal, the Appellate Court found that the Plaintiff had plead sufficient facts to avail himself of the exception and overcome the motion to dismiss. However, the Court pointed out that it agreed with the lower court in as much as there is generally no duty upon a person to protect another from the unforeseen criminal activity of a third party, and that landowners do not have a general duty of care for users of an adjacent property.