The Texas Supreme Court recently held that claimants who seek to hold property owners liable for third-party criminal acts committed on the premises must demonstrate with evidence both that the crime was foreseeable and that the risk of harm was unreasonable.  In particular, the plaintiff must address the burden that premises owners would necessarily bear in undertaking additional security measures to prevent the type of crime that injured the plaintiff.  Although Texas cases had previously acknowledged that a viable premises liability claim requires both foreseeability and unreasonableness, the ruling in UDR Texas Properties, L.P. v. Petrie clarified that these elements are distinct concepts that a plaintiff must establish with evidence.

The plaintiff’s claims in Petrie arose from a frightening set of circumstances: during the course of an evening party at an apartment complex, the plaintiff walked to the parking lot to make a phone call from his car.  Two assailants approached the car, pointed a shotgun through the window and ordered the plaintiff to exit his vehicle and surrender his wallet and keys.  When the plaintiff hesitated in complying with a demand that he lie down, one of the criminals shot him in the knee.  The plaintiff escaped by crawling under a car while the assailants fled.  The plaintiff eventually sued the apartment complex, claiming that it should have known of the high crime rate on its premises and failed to exercise ordinary care to make the complex safe.

During trial court proceedings, the plaintiff presented expert testimony that focused on whether the violent crime that he experienced was foreseeable.  The Texas Supreme Court ruled that evidence was insufficient as a matter of law because the factors relevant to a demonstration of foreseeability do not reach the issue of whether the conditions on the premises amount to an unreasonable risk of harm.  According to the Texas Supreme Court, the unreasonableness inquiry “explores the policy implications of imposing a legal duty to protect against foreseeable criminal conduct.”  This requires consideration of issues such as the “burdens a property owner would necessarily incur to prevent or reduce the risk of a crime.”  

The plaintiff in Petrie had notice from previous Texas premises liability cases that, in addition to establishing foreseeability, he might be required to show that potential for violent crime at the apartment complex presented an unreasonable risk of harm.  He chose instead to stand solely on evidence related to foreseeability, and did not offer any evidence on the owner’s burden to prevent or reduce the risk of serious crime at this location.  The Texas Supreme Court accordingly rendered judgment in the defendant’s favor. 

This holding elucidates the evidentiary requirement for Texas premises liability claims arising from third-party crime.  The burden of proof that plaintiffs must meet poses a substantial obstacle to such claims.