Liability in Maryland of Landowner for Criminal Acts of Another

This month, the Maryland Court of Special Appealsdecided the case of Veytsman z. New York Palace, Inc. The issue in Veytsman was whether a nightclub had a duty to protect its patrons from being attacked by fellow patrons.

The court found that the nightclub had no such duty, affirming Baltimore City Circuit Judge Evelyn Omega Cannon’s ruling. The opinion underscores how difficult it is to hold nightclubs responsible for altercations that invariably occur in nightclubs, bars and restaurants.

In this case, Plaintiffs were having dinner at the New York Palace, which has since closed but was once a hip hangout for Baltimore’s Russian community, on the same evening as a wedding reception. As is often the case when alcohol is involved, an altercation arose between Plaintiffs and the wedding party. Plaintiffs alleged in their Complaint that Plaintiffs were physically assaulted.

The question posed to the court is whether the nightclub had a duty to protect Plaintiff from an attack by third parties. The court set forth the three circumstances under which a landowner may be held liable when someone is injured by a third party criminal activity:

1. Breach of the duty to eliminate conditions that contributed to the criminal activity (such as providing security personnel, lighting, locks and the like) when this duty was based on knowledge of prior similar incidents, not on knowledge of facts relating to the incident in question;
2. Knowledge of prior conduct of the assailant that allegedly made the assault foreseeable and preventable; or
3. Knowledge of events occurring on the premises, prior to and leading up to the assault, which made imminent harm foreseeable.

In this case, court found that Plaintiff had no evidence that New York Palace had advance notice that an altercation might arise, nor did it delay in acting to protect the Plaintiffs from the aggressors once the brawl began.

Of course, Plaintiffs do have a claim against the individuals who attacked them. But it is hard to find a lawyer in Baltimore who will take a case against individuals without insurance because of the difficulties in collecting money, even if the Defendants do have money to satisfy a judgment. I learned this the hard way after bringing a case against an NFL punter with the Carolina Panthers (now with the Denver Broncos). This Defendant had millions of dollars in assets. Eventually, we did collect but it took a few years. The moral of this story is absent compelling circumstances, if an attorney thinks he or she will have problems collecting on a judgment, it is probably not a case worth taking.

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