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saelzler

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Published on February 15, 2008

Author: Vincenza

Source: authorstream.com

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Plaintiff’s Burden of Proof on the Elements of Cause-in-Fact and Proximate Cause:  Plaintiff’s Burden of Proof on the Elements of Cause-in-Fact and Proximate Cause SAELZLER v. ADVANCED GROUP 400 23 P.3d 1143 (Cal., 2001) The Saelzler facts:  The Saelzler facts Saelzler, an employee of Federal Express, entered one of the main gates of the defendants’ 28 building, 300 unit apartment complex in mid-afternoon, to deliver a package to a resident. She saw two young men loitering outside a security gate that had been propped open, and, while walking across the grounds, she saw another young man already on the premises. The resident addressee was not at home, and when plaintiff began to return with the package in hand, the three men confronted her, beat her, and attempted to rape her. She suffered serious injuries. Her assailants fled and were never apprehended. Saelzler filed a civil action against the defendants, as owners and operators of the apartment complex, alleging that they knew that dangerous persons frequented their premises, and failed to maintain the premises in a safe condition, failed to provide adequate security, and failed to warn others of the unsafe conditions. The defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that plaintiff was unable to establish any substantial causal link between their alleged negligence and her injury. The facts (continued):  The facts (continued) At the civil trial, Saelzler could not identify her assailants, i.e., whether they were trespassers on defendants’ property, or whether they were tenants of the building who were permitted to pass through the security gates. She also offered no evidence that the propped-open security gate was actually broken or otherwise not functioning, or whether her assailants entered through the gate, or broke it to facilitate entry. She did, however, present evidence that the complex was located in a high crime area (with frequent juvenile gang activity both on and near defendant’s premises), and that defendants had actual knowledge of frequent, recurring criminal activity on the premises. She provided police reports and security logs showing that within the year prior to her assault, defendants received 41 reports of trespass and criminal activity (including gang activity and drug transactions, gunshots, robberies, and sexual harassment of women, sexual assaults and rapes) and 45 reports of broken or inoperable perimeter fences and gates. In fact, defendants’ own apartment manager used security personnel to escort her to her vehicle whenever she left the premises. The facts (continued):  The facts (continued) Police officers advised defendants’ manager and security firm that they should add daytime security patrols, and plaintiff’s security expert expressed the opinion that Saelzler would not have been assaulted had there been daytime security and a more concerted effort to keep the gates repaired and closed. He described the apartment complex as “a haven for gangsters and hoodlums….” In response to their crime problems, the defendants employed security guards to patrol the premises at night (from 5:00 PM – 5:00 AM, and randomly on a 24 hour shift), and regularly attempted to repair broken locks or nonfunctioning gates, forced aggressive tenants or trespassers to leave the area, and evicted tenants involved in criminal or gang activity. Case History:  Case History The trial court agreed that the undisputed evidence of prior incidents of trespass and broken or inoperable perimeter gates, and criminal activity on the premises made it reasonably foreseeable that violent crime would recur on the premises. It thus held that defendants had a duty to provide increased security. However, despite this finding, the trial court entered Summary Judgment on defendants’ Motion, finding that she failed to produce material evidence that defendants’ negligence was a proximate cause of her assault. A majority of the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that Saelzler’s evidence raised a jury question as to causation. The Supreme Court’s Opinion:  The Supreme Court’s Opinion Writing for the majority, Justice Chin described the case in apparent social policy terms, observing that the Court took the case on review to consider important issues concerning the liability of apartment owners and other business enterprises to persons injured on their premises by the criminal acts of others. Justice Chin suggested that this issue is difficult to resolve because of the need to balance competing policy concerns: society’s interest in compensating persons injured by another’s negligence, with its reluctance to impose unrealistic financial burdens on property owners conducting legitimate business enterprises. The majority resolved this balance in the instant case by holding that, while Saelzler presented sufficient evidence of defendants’ duty, and their negligence in the providing of security and maintenance, her evidence was insufficient to raise a disputable issue of fact whether such deficient conduct actually caused her injuries. In other words, assuming that defendants’ admitted (for Summary Judgment purposes) that they owed Saelzler a duty of care and breached that duty, the majority reasoned that, since Saelzler could not identify her assailants, she could not prove that additional security or maintenance would have prevented the assault and her injuries. Her prima facie case thus fails. The Majority’s Reasoning:  The Majority’s Reasoning Citing Sharon P., 989 P.2d 121, Nola M. v. University of Southern California, 20 Cal.Rptr.2d 97; Constance B. v. State of California, 223 Cal.Rptr. 645; and Noble v. Los Angeles Dodgers, Inc., 214 Cal.Rptr. 395, the majority noted that the courts have rejected claims of abstract negligence pertaining to the lighting and maintenance of property where no connection to alleged injuries was shown. These cases reason that, if liability may be based on the general notion that criminals are generally deterred by strong lighting, or other security measures, businesses will become the insurers of the safety of persons on their premises. The court noted almost identical historical precedent in the case of Leslie G., 50 Cal.Rptr.2d 785, a case in which plaintiff was raped in a parking garage, and alleged negligence in the maintenance of the garage’s gates. In Leslie G., the intermediate appellate court held that, absent direct evidence that the rapist entered or departed through the broken gate, or that the broken gate was the only way he could have entered, the victim could not survive summary judgment simply because it was possible that the assailant entered through the broken gate. The majority reasoned (in the same manner as the court in East Texas Theatres, Inc. v. Rutledge, at p. 197) that speculation cannot support an inference of causation, and when plaintiff fails to offer evidence that her assault was more likely than not the result of defendants’ negligence, the court must enter summary judgment or direct a verdict for the defendant. The majority’s reasoning (continued):  The majority’s reasoning (continued) The majority admitted that the reason for having security gates and guards would be to protect against trespassers. But, they reasoned, since Saelzler had no evidence that her assailants were unauthorized to enter the complex, she could not overcome the inference that her assailants could have been tenants having authority to enter and remain on the premises. That being so, she cannot show that defendants' failure to provide increased daytime security at each entrance gate or functioning locked gates was a substantial factor in causing her injuries. The majority concluded their analysis by asking an arguable rhetorical question: If plaintiff’s case presents an issue of fact for a jury, then how much security is enough? In the context of criminal intrusion cases, the majority reasons, this question creates a slippery slope which can make a proprietor the de facto insurer of the safety of those who enter the premises. Moreover, if the landowners’ liability is subjected to an economic analysis, the imposition of liability in the instant case will result in the cost of additional security being passed on to low income tenants in increased rents, thus adding to their financial burden. The Saelzler Dissent:  The Saelzler Dissent The dissenting justices view the majority’s reasoning as an improper definition of causation, and an improper application of the principle of summary judgment. They conclude that the majority’s holding makes it virtually impossible for a plaintiff like Saelzler to subject a landowner to liability for injuries resulting from its unreasonable failure to provide security to protect against foreseeable criminal intrusion which threatens tenants or invitees. The dissent proceeds from the premise that a plaintiff need not establish causation with certainty, citing Valdez v. J.D. Diffenbaugh Co., 124 Cal.Rptr. 467, and Ahrentzen v. Westburg , 69 Cal.Rptr. 916 (i.e., that Saelzler is not required to prove with certainty that the absence of daytime security was the cause of the attack). The dissent explains, citing treatise authority, that proof of causation relates to the expectation that certain consequences follow certain events because we have observed those sequences on previous occasions. Such questions are for the jury to decide, and cannot be decided as a matter of law. Thus, the plaintiff need only produce evidence sufficient to permit a reasonable trier of fact to infer that it is more probable than not that the defendants’ negligent failure to provide additional security caused the injury. This distinction is critical in a case where plaintiff is unable to specifically identify her attackers, but is able to place them inside defendants’ complex. Reasonable jurors could conclude that it is more probable than not that the presence of security guards would have deterred the attack on plaintiff. The dissent (continued):  The dissent (continued) The dissent also expresses concern for the extent to which the Court has protected landowners from liability for criminal assaults of persons on their premises, citing prior holdings requiring a “high degree of foreseeability” of similar assaults as a condition precedent to imposing a duty of hiring security guards. In this case, the dissent states, the majority has gone even farther, extending a virtual immunity to the defendant landowners. The dissent observes that the majority’s view of plaintiff’s expert’s testimony as speculative and abstract is erroneous, and suggests that its view of plaintiff’s evidence may be unduly influenced by its view of the social issues raised by this case. The dissent’s view of the social policy question and the balance of rights and responsibilities:  The dissent’s view of the social policy question and the balance of rights and responsibilities More specifically, the dissent makes the following observation about the social policy “balance” presented by this case: “Invoking policy, the majority expresses concern that “the ultimate costs of imposing liability for failure to provide sufficient daytime security to prevent assaults would be passed on to the tenants of low cost housing ..., adding to the financial burdens on poor renters.” The majority does not mention the economic cost to tenants of allowing crime to flourish…. [Such] policy considerations relate principally to duty rather than causation. But even assuming the relevance of the assertion, and assuming in addition the truth of the majority's unstated and unsupported premise that neither market forces nor regulation would cause landlords to absorb reasonable security costs…I am unwilling to assume that California renters, of whatever economic status, would elect to live in circumstances where they and their guests are subject to constant fear and, as in this case, the actuality of rampant crime and violent assault, in preference to a marginal upward pressure on rents.” The majority’s misstatement of the legal rule:  The majority’s misstatement of the legal rule The majority’s assertion that its approach is necessary in order to prevent a landowner being an insurer of the safety of its tenants or invitees is criticized by the dissent as a fundamental misstatement of basic negligence doctrine. The dissent emphasizes that, if a landowner has taken reasonable care in the discharge of its duty to maintain reasonably safe premises, then the landowner will not be subject to liability. In the fundamental context of negligence law, permitting the instant case to proceed, therefore, would not make a landowner the "insurer" of all who enter its premises. The dissent also argues that the majority has mischaracterized the facts of the case in order to support its application of the summary judgment rule in defendants’ favor. The plaintiff is not required to suggest that her attack was the result of the absence of guards at every malfunctioning security gate or entrance. She is not, in fact, required to allege that she was assaulted by a non-tenant. Rather, the law relating to causation requires only that she raise a triable issue of fact whether the absence of additional security measures would have deterred her attackers. The Elements: Cause-in-Fact and Proximate Cause:  The Elements: Cause-in-Fact and Proximate Cause Can the Saelzler case be reconciled with the Court’s prior holding and reasoning in Rowland v. Christian? We will examine Rowland later in Section H, p. 377. Can the Court’s reasoning be reconciled with its decision in Summers v. Tice? What must a tenant or invitee of an apartment complex owner show to raise triable issues on the questions of cause-in-fact and proximate cause, in order to subject a landowner to liability for injuries suffered as a result of a foreseeable criminal assault on the landowner’s property?

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