Since 1997, Southcoast Childcare Centers Inc. has leased its childcare facility from the First Baptist Church. The leased property, located adjacent to a busy street, includes a children’s play area that is surrounded by a 4-foot-high chain-link fence.
On May 3, 1999, Steven Abrams intentionally drove his large Cadillac Coupe de Ville through the fence, killing little Brandon Wiener and Sierra Soto, and injuring several other children.
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Adams was convicted of first-degree murder with lying-in-wait and multiple-murder special circumstances. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But the parents of Brandon and Sierra sued Southcoast for negligence and premises liability damages. They alleged the childcare center should have erected a stronger fence around the play area.
However, the childcare center owners replied this was a criminal act, which was unforeseeable, so there should be no liability. They noted there had never been any criminal activity in the vicinity and the only previous incident involving the fence was a postal truck that went out of control and accidentally hit the fence.
If you were the judge would you hold the childcare center owners liable to the parents of the children for negligence and premises liability?
The judge said no!
This was an intentional criminal act, the judge began, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths of two children. The convicted murderer’s act was unforeseeable, as there had been no prior similar criminal incidents in the vicinity, he noted.
There is a duty of landlords and business operators to take reasonable steps to secure common areas against foreseeable criminal acts of third parties, he continued, which are likely to occur in the absence of precautionary measures.
Although this childcare center is located adjacent to a busy street, the judge explained, this is not a negligence situation, but it was a criminal act, which was unforeseeable.
“Without prior similar criminal acts or intrusions of any type in the surrounding businesses, defendants here could not have been expected to create a fortress to protect the children, or to take further steps to deter or hinder a vicious murderer, unconcerned about the safety of innocent children, from committing his crime,” the judge emphasized.
Therefore, the owners of the childcare center owed no legal duty to the parents to erect a stronger barrier to prevent this unforeseeable criminal act, the judge ruled.
Based on the 2004 California Supreme Court decision in Wiener v. Southcoast Childcare Centers Inc., 12 Cal.Rptr.3d 615.
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