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Rautenberg v. Pope

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

July 2, 2019

POPE et al.

          DOYLE, P. J., COOMER and MARKLE, JJ.

          Doyle, Presiding Judge.

         This appeal arises from a personal injury case filed by Steve Rautenberg against Robert L. Pope, Pope Properties & Investments, L. P., and Global Parts, Inc., (collectively "Global Parts") after Rautenberg was injured on the premises of a Global Parts parking lot that leased tractor trailer spaces to his employer. The trial court granted Global Parts's motion for summary judgment, and Rautenberg appeals, arguing that (1) the trial court inappropriately applied Prophecy Corp. v. Rossignol, Inc.[1]; (2) the trial court ignored evidence that the defendants were aware of prior crimes in the parking lot; (3) the trial court erred by weighing evidence and making factual determinations in derogation of the standard on summary judgment; and (4) the trial court erred by finding as a matter of law that the attack on Rautenberg was not foreseeable. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

On appeal from the grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment, we conduct a de novo review of the law and evidence, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, to determine whether a genuine issue of material fact exists and whether the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[2]

         Viewed in this light, the record shows that on June 20, 2012, Rautenberg, a truck driver, parked his truck in a rented space at 2952 Moreland Avenue after dropping off a trailer and in anticipation of meeting another driver bringing a second trailer for Rautenberg to haul. 2952 Moreland was a property including a parts shop and a fenced lot with lighting, controlled gate access, and security cameras around a building on the property, some of which captured portions of the parking lot; Global Parts leased spaces in the fenced lot to trucking companies for their employees to use as secure areas for their drivers to park or leave trailers.

         On the day in question, between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., Rautenberg parked at the Global Parts lot without anyone parked beside him and retired to the sleeping cab of his truck, where he had the television and air conditioner on, to await his co-worker. Rautenberg was startled awake by sounds on the driver-side window of his truck and saw an individual at the window with a tool - a long pry bar or screwdriver - but having just awoken, Rautenberg did not realize that the person was not his co-worker. Upon seeing Rautenberg, the man left, and Rautenberg, who was not wearing shoes, exited through the driver's side and found another tractor trailer cab parked extremely close to his cab. Thus, when he stepped out, Rautenberg was forced to exit onto the step of the neighboring truck, in which he saw the man he had viewed through his window. At this point, the man quickly drove the cab away with Rautenberg hanging on the side mirror, sideswiping a trailer on his way to the exit; Rautenberg fell off, and the cab ran over him, backed over him, and ran back over him again, leaving Rautenberg with numerous injuries.

         Rautenberg contended that his trucking company started using the Global Parts lot because it had better security than the lot his employer previously used. He deposed that in his experience, the gate was closed after hours, and when hanging onto the rogue cab, he was hoping the gate would be closed and the truck would stop so he could get off. Although Rautenberg deposed that the incident happened in the early evening around rush hour, the police report noted that the officer first made contact with Rautenberg in the lot at 8:36 p.m.

         Global Parts's employee Jill McLeer deposed that while she was managing the parking lot, she would get police reports if incidents occurred, whether criminal or accidental, and the company did its best to get the surveillance video if it was available. She deposed that there could have been as many as 20 prior thefts in the lot. McLeer deposed that she had received complaints that the gate was not working just before the incident and that they had various problems with it not working; she confirmed that there was gas stolen from a truck within the few months prior to the incident. McLeer deposed that prior to 2012, there were multiple thefts, including hundreds of thousands of dollars of furniture stolen from multiple trailers belonging to one company. She deposed that normally Global Parts's employees were on the premises until they closed at 5:00 p.m., and "typically the back lot . . . [was] secured by" then.

         Charles Stille, Global Parts's 30 (b) (6) witness, deposed that there were some burglaries on the property. And prior to the incident involving Rautenberg, Global Parts had received complaints about security, including gas siphoning and burglaries, Stille "had no idea" how many such complaints he had received but at least one was a stolen vehicle.

         In its summary judgment order, the trial court, relying on Doe v. Prudential-Bache/A.G. Spanos Realty Partners, L. P.[3] and Baker v. Simon Property Group, [4]granted summary judgment "[b]ecause the [c]ourt finds a lack of prior substantially similar crimes," thereby establishing lack of foreseeability on the part of Global Parts that would require it to keep Rautenberg safe from this third-party criminal act.

         1. Rautenberg argues that the trial court erred by granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment. We agree.

Although a landowner has a duty to invitees to exercise ordinary care to keep its premises safe, the landowner is not an insurer of an invitee's safety. An intervening criminal act by a third party generally insulates a landowner from liability unless such criminal act was reasonably foreseeable. In order for the crime at issue to be foreseeable, it must be substantially similar to previous criminal activities occurring on or near the premises such that a reasonable person would take ordinary precautions to protect invitees from the risk posed by the criminal activity. In determining whether previous criminal acts are substantially similar to the occurrence causing harm, thereby establishing the foreseeability of risk, the court must inquire into the location, nature[, ] and extent of the prior criminal activities and their likeness, proximity or other relationship to the crime in question. While the prior criminal activity must be substantially similar to the particular crime in question, that does not mean identical. What is required is that the prior incident be sufficient to attract the landowner's attention to the dangerous condition which resulted in the litigated incident.[5]

         Here, despite the trial court's findings otherwise, Rautenberg presented sufficient evidence which precluded summary judgment based on an intervening criminal act. First, Global Parts's representive admitted to knowledge of "burglaries," thefts, and other property crimes on the premises, and many of those break-ins had been perpetrated on the trucks parked in the rented spaces.[6] It is clear from the email exchanges between Global Parts and Rautenberg's employer that lessees expected the parking lot to be secure; indeed, the hope that it was secure was one of the stated reasons that Rautenberg's employer left its old lot and moved to Global Parts. Moreover, the personal injuries Rautenberg sustained in this incident were directly related to the commission of the property crime of breaking into a tractor trailer (the type of crime of which Global Parts was on notice and expected to guard against) and the suspect's ensuing flight from the area as opposed to, for example, a sudden intentional assault performed in an area known for minor theft.[7] Sufficient facts were presented such that a jury could find that Rautenberg was surprised by the sudden movement of the truck and did not intend to be carried away by the assailant. The fact that his injuries were different than those one would normally expect from a truck break-in is not a fact that demands summary judgment in this instance.[8] Finally, regardless of the exact time of the incident, all of the testimony shows that it occurred after the time at which McLeer deposed the lot should have been secured for the evening.[9]

         Rautenberg presented sufficient evidence, largely based on the admissions of Global Parts, that the owners were aware that their customers had encountered property crimes on the property before and that they were expected to guard against such crimes. Accordingly, the trial court erred by ...

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