Employment: Keeping Business Visitors Safe From Crime
We can't predict, much less prevent, crime. So as a business owner you aren't liable to visitors when someone comes on your property and commits a crime, right? Under Oklahoma law, the answer depends on many factors prudent business owners and employers should be aware of.
The law defines "invitees" as persons who are invited onto your property for business purposes. This includes customers, contractors, vendors, etc. In general, a business owner is required to use ordinary care to keep its property in a reasonably safe condition for its invitees. That means maintaining guardrails on stairways, keeping floors free of tripping hazards, spills and other potential dangers. But what about protecting invitees from crimes that might occur on your property like robberies or assaults?
For years, the rule in Oklahoma has been that a property owner had no duty to protect its business invitees from injuries caused by a third party's criminal act unless the owner knew the criminal act was occurring or about to occur. That rule appears to have been enlarged by a decision of the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2008 wherein the Court held that even though a property owner might have no reason to expect criminal conduct from a particular individual at a particular time, the owner may have reason to know from "past experience" that there is a general likelihood of criminal conduct by third persons that might be a danger to visitors.
The Court made it clear that awareness of past criminal activity on your property may give rise to a duty to protect invites from crimes even if a crime occurring in the future is not exactly the same as what you may have experienced in the past. There is little guidance on how similar a crime must be to past criminal conduct so as to make a business owner liable for an invitee's injuries. For example, does one or two car burglaries in your parking lot mean you need to take steps to prevent assaults or abductions on your property? The cautionary lesson to business owners is that you must be very attentive to criminal activity on your property and how possible criminal activity in the future could pose risks to your invitees. Further, even if you have not experienced crime on your property, the courts also hold that you may be charged with notice that your invitees are in general danger of criminal conduct based on the location or character of your business. This means businesses located in areas of high crime occurrence or businesses where crimes often occur, such as fights among patrons at a night club, must take reasonable measures to protect invitees from foreseeable dangers.
From the current state of the law it is clear that you need to be aware of criminal activity in your area and crimes that have taken place on your property in the past. Based on your knowledge of the past criminal activity and the general crime level for your location, you must be mindful of what criminal activity may occur in the future and consider what reasonable steps you might take to protect against those dangers.
By N. Lance Bryan, firstname.lastname@example.org