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Fairfax, Leesburg & Loudoun, Virginia

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Doug Landau
Doug Landau
Attorney • (866) 735-1102 Ext 610

Protecting innocent patrons from criminal attacks

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Victims of criminal acts may—in addition to any criminal charges brought against the perpetrator—seek monetary recovery through a civil lawsuit from the person who committed the wrong. For example, individuals who are robbed or mugged may sue in order to recover for their losses. But often, a criminal defendant doesn’t have much to offer much in the way of recovery and plaintiffs may look elsewhere—for example the property owner where the crime took place.

Take the example of a convenience store customer who is robbed, beaten and injured while making a purchase. Can the owner of the convenience store be held liable for these so-called "crimes of opportunity"? In Virginia, the answer is generally no. So why is it that these stores, even when they donot have security guards or safety procedures, get to avoid culpability altogether in these situations?

The answer has to do with a legal term known as “duty of care”. It is one of the first elements that a plaintiff must prove in any negligence suit. That is in our example, “does the defendant convenience store owe the plaintiff a duty of care?” Or, even more specifically, “does the defendant convenience store have a duty to protect customers from criminal acts?” It’s relatively straightforward to say that the convenience store had some duties with respect to the plaintiff by making sure that the store is a reasonably safe place for customers to shop. But generally, the law will not recognize a duty of care when it comes to the actions of individuals the convenience store has no control over. In other words, the convenience store doesn’t have a legal duty to protect customers from criminals. This often holds true even if the convenience store is located in a rough neighborhood and even if crimes have been committed there in the past. If several convenience store customers' cars have been vandalized, that fact alone is not enough to put the premises owner or operator on "notice" that a violent crime is about to take place.

That said, as with all general rules, there are exceptions. In extreme situations, the court may find that a store (or other type of business) does have specific duties to protect plaintiffs from imminent danger of harm. In other words, if the store owner knows of a specific and immediate risk to its customers, then it may have a duty to warn those customers or take other steps to protect them. But simply having general knowledge about the dangers in the neighborhood is not enough.