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Assault at a Cinema – Who’s To Blame?

movie-house-771223-mAlthough property owners are not responsible for preventing every instance of violence, they must take reasonable steps to secure the premises in appropriate circumstances.  A negligent (or inadequate) security claim arises when a person is injured due to the poor or unreasonable safety precautions established by the premises owner.  In a case recently decided by the Appellate Court of Massachusetts, the Court held that a woman who alleged she was raped in the bathroom of Regal Cinemas in Bellingham could not have a new trial after judgment was entered for the Defendant cinema.  The Plaintiff claimed that Regal Cinemas should be held liable under the theory of negligent supervision, specifically, that the Defendant organization had policies or procedures in place that exacerbated or made it possible for such an egregious act to occur on its property.

The failure of a homeowner, business owner, or premises owner to prevent a crime does not establish the owner’s liability in a negligent security case.  Instead, the court will determine whether the underlying crime was foreseeable to the owner.  When a crime is reasonably foreseeable to occur on the premises of another there may be a duty to protect, and thus, negligence may attach.  The court has held that when it comes to security of premises, a landowner is not an insurer of land.  However, the court has articulated that liability may be warranted in certain circumstances which hinge on the foreseeability of the underlying acts:

[The possessor] may, however, know or have reason to know, from past experience, that there is a likelihood of conduct on the part of third persons in general which is likely to endanger the safety of the visitor, even though he has no reason to expect it on the part of any particular individual. If the place or character of his business, or his past experience, is such that he should reasonably anticipate careless or criminal conduct on the part of third persons, either generally or at some particular time, he may be under a duty to take precautions against it, and to provide a reasonably sufficient number of servants to afford a reasonable protection. MacQuarrie v. Howard Johnson Co., 877 F.2d 126, 129 (1st Cir. 1989).

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has found that negligent supervision may attach to a variety of owners of land- including colleges.  The court has held that colleges, for instance, owe a duty to protect students against the criminal acts of third parties.  Specifically, due to the concentration of young people, especially young women, favorable opportunities for criminal behavior are abundant.  Additionally, “some students may not have been exposed previously to living in a residence hall or in a metropolitan area and may not be fully conscious of the dangers that are present.  Thus the college must take responsibility on itself if anything is to be done at all.”  Mullins v. Pine Manor Coll., 389 Mass. at 51-52.

In the case against the cinema, Jennifer Anton v. Regal Entertainment Group, the jury did not find that the Plaintiff was sexually assaulted.  Because of the contradictory testimony and lack of evidence, the underlying crime for sexual assault could not be proven.  As such, liability could not attach to the Defendant cinema.  The court did not rule on the reasonableness of the cinema in maintaining adequate security because, in the eyes of the court and jury, no assault was shown by a preponderance of the evidence to have occurred.

To read more on this case, please read Jennifer Anton v. Regal Entertainment Group, which was decided on May 06, 2014  You can access this case on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ website by clicking here and searching for unpublished decisions.  Please check out the portion of our site dedicated to premises liability and Negligent/Inadequate security. If you or a family member have been injured on the property of another, our office can help you pursue your claim. To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.