Speculation that more security measures in a high-crime area would have prevented assailants from perpetrating a violent assault will not meet a plaintiff’s burden of proving causation. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently reached that conclusion in George v. Hercules Real Estate Services, Inc., demonstrating the weakness of negligent security claims lacking solid evidence to establish causation.
Plaintiff Derrick George was shot multiple times by unknown assailants during a home invasion. Plaintiff asserted claims for negligence, nuisance, and punitive damages against Hercules Real Estate Services, the manager of his apartment complex. A few weeks prior to this incident, Plaintiff’s apartment was burglarized between the hours of midnight and 2:00AM. He was not home at the time. After the burglary, Hercules repaired Plaintiff’s damaged front door and added a metal burglar guard, which made the door more secure but also more difficult to lock. In addition, Plaintiff’s apartment had a monitored alarm system and panic-button on the front door. Believing that the complex was still unsafe, Plaintiff bought a shotgun and kept it by the front door for protection after the initial burglary. On the night of the shooting, Plaintiff was home with a friend when he heard a knock at the door after midnight. Plaintiff saw a silhouette of a person through the peep hole, but could not hear anything outside. Plaintiff opened the door and two unknown individuals immediately tried to force their way into his home. Plaintiff could not lock the deadbolt on the new “burglar guard” and instead fired his shotgun at the intruders. A gunfight ensued, and Plaintiff was shot four times. After the incident, Plaintiff did not return to the apartment and stopped paying rent.
Hercules’ knowledge of prior crimes at the apartment complex and its location within a high-crime area was not enough to establish that the failure to take additional security precautions caused the assault on Mr. George. Summary judgment was appropriate because Plaintiff produced “no evidence or testimony that reducing or increasing security would have affected the crime rate in general or the particular crime that injured George.” The causation element became dispositive to the case because “[a] mere possibility of such causation is not enough; and when the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the court to grant summary judgment for the defendant.”
In reaching its decision, the Court focused not only on the acts and omissions of Hercules, but on the actions of Plaintiff as well. The Court determined the evidence was insufficient to create a question of fact on whether Hercules’ alleged failure to provide adequate security caused Plaintiff’s injuries “when he was shot after voluntarily opening his door to an unknown person after midnight.”
The Court of Appeals’ ruling in George underscores the significance of evidence establishing causation. Plaintiffs who bring premises liability lawsuits based on negligent security allegations cannot simply jump to the conclusion that hypothetical additional security measures would necessarily have prevented injurious criminal acts. Landowners and other entities facing such lawsuits should probe the nature and quality of a plaintiff’s causation evidence.