A jury should decide whether an apartment complex was negligent after the robbery and kidnapping of a woman who claimed the property’s management deceived her into believing that security officers were protecting the complex, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.

In September 2008, the plaintiff was abducted and robbed at gunpoint by two unknown assailants in a common area of Wellspring, the apartment complex where she lived. The plaintiff said the two men sexually assaulted her before she eventually got away. (The plaintiff’s name is included in the court’s opinion; Lawyers Weekly policy is to avoid publicizing the names of sexual assault victims when possible.)

The plaintiff sued PRG Real Estate Management, which operated Wellspring, along with the complex’s owner and Karen Campbell, a PRG employee who was the property manager. She claimed that the companies and Campbell were negligent because before moving in, she was assured that there were security officers on duty ‘round the clock.’

Judge Jeffrey Young of the Richland County Circuit Court granted the defendants summary judgment, which the state’s Court of Appeals upheld, but in a March 20 ruling the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the circuit court for trial.

The plaintiff “acknowledges the general rule that a landlord does not have a duty to provide security for their tenants,” Justice George James wrote in the ruling. “However, [she] asserts respondents voluntarily undertook such a duty.”

“When you undertake a duty, you have to perform that duty in a reasonable manner,” said Wayne Ridgeway of Burriss & Ridgeway in Columbia, who represented the plaintiff. “They told her they had security, and they gave her a pager number to call security. But when her assault occurred, there was no security on the property.”

The management company contended that the plaintiff chose to live at Wellspring because it was close to her job and was recommended by fellow churchgoers, the ruling says.

“However, the record also contains [her] testimony that she chose Wellspring because ‘there were security officers on duty, so I felt like it would be a safe place,’” James wrote.

The complex did have a “courtesy officer” program where off-duty law enforcement officers would patrol the grounds in exchange for reduced rent, but the courtesy officers had been gone for some time before the assault because they had moved away, Ridgeway said. Still, the complex’s management continued to give tenants a pager number, he said.

“The complex continued to carry on the charade to the tenants that they had security,” he said.

James wrote that the appeals court erred in affirming the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment on the claim that PRG and Campbell were negligent in failing to provide security because there were questions of fact that a jury must resolve to ascertain whether a duty of care arose in this case.

“Specifically, a jury must determine (a) whether any failure by Respondents to exercise due care in performing the undertaking increased the risk of harm [or] (b) whether any harm suffered [arose] from her reliance upon respondents’ undertaking. If the jury answers ‘no’ to both questions, [the] cause of action fails. If the jury answers ‘yes’ to either question, the jury must proceed to the issues of breach and proximate cause,” James wrote.

Justice John Kittredge dissented.

“The majority takes the common existence of an apartment complex’s security officer program and morphs that limited undertaking into a sweeping duty to protect tenants from the unforeseen criminal acts of third parties,” Kittredge wrote. “Especially troubling is what I view as the majority giving petitioner a pass on the element of proximate cause.”
Randall Hood, Jordan Calloway, and Deborah Casey of McGowan, Hood & Felder in Rock Hill and Gerald Malloy in Hartsville also represented the plaintiff.

Charles Kinney and Christian Stegmaier of Collins & Lacy in Columbia represented the defendants. They could not be reached for comment.

The 23-page decision is Wright v. PRG Real Estate Management, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-012-19). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw


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