By Maria Sassian, Triple-I Consultant
While property crime (except for car theft) has been on the decline, the United States has been experiencing a worrying surge in violent crime since the start of the pandemic.
Murder and non-negligent manslaughter rose 29.4 percent in 2020 from 2019, the biggest rise since recordkeeping began in 1960, according to F.B.I. data. The trend continued in the first half of 2021, when the number of homicides increased 16 percent from the same period in 2020 and 42 percent compared to the same period in 2019. Aggravated assault increased 9 percent, and gun assaults were up 5 percent, according to the Council on Criminal Justice.
Crime analysts have suggested several possible contributing factors, including the many strains brought on by the pandemic; a pullback in enforcement by the police; and a spike in firearm purchases.
When a violent crime occurs on a business or residential property, the victims often can hold the owners liable for damages stemming from “negligent security.” Negligent security cases are based on the obligation (“duty of care”) of a property owner or tenant to provide a safe environment for their customers, residents, or visitors. According to PropertyCasualty 360, such cases are a “significant and growing subset of premises liability.”
Examples of negligent security include:
- Poor lighting,
- Lack of security guards or guards who fail to do their job properly, and
- Insufficient locks or other security devices.
The duty of care borne by property owners can vary based on the types of businesses they operate. A shopping mall with limited hours may have a lower duty of care than an assisted living facility charged with caring for vulnerable residents 24/7.
Negligent security cases incur significant investigation and settlement costs, though few make it to trial. Cases that do go to trial can get widespread media coverage, and juries, sympathetic to violent-crime victims, can hand down massive awards. In Georgia, for example, lawsuits stemming from criminal attacks in CVS and Kroger parking lots ended in verdicts of $43 million in Fulton County and $69.6 million in DeKalb County, respectively, in 2019. CVS and Kroger were held liable on the basis that they should have had more security.
Property and business owners can prepare to demonstrate that they have taken reasonable precautions by making sure crime prevention practices are in place. Steps that can be taken include:
- Have on-site security staff and make sure they follow up-to-date policies and procedures,
- Make sure security equipment is up-to-date and working,
- Make sure all staff is trained in security and in how to handle potentially dangerous situations,
- Perform regular inspections on lighting, stairs, windows, and doors,
- Maintain landscaping properly, and
- Investigate all threats of criminal activity.
The role of insurance
Negligent security is part of the broader coverage of premises liability. Whether you are covered or not depends on your individual policy. If negligent security is excluded, it should plainly say so in the policy. If the policy language is ambiguous, courts may favor the policyholder in a coverage dispute.
When you’re covered, your insurance underwriting professional will work with you to make sure recognized crime prevention practices are being followed on the property. That way you will be prepared to prove that you followed reasonable precautions if a violent crime occurs.
If a violent crime does happen and a negligent security insurance claim is filed, the insurer will want to respond quickly to investigate the security measures that were in place, retain legal counsel, and engage a premises security expert. Delays in developing a defense plan can adversely affect the outcome and cost of the case. It’s important for the policyholder to have an emergency call list in the event of a crime and to have someone from the claims group on that list.
An insurance adjuster can help to resolve complex claims quickly, as well as help property owners prevent future incidents. The adjuster might dig into a property’s history to illuminate what’s considered “normal” and what activities owners should reasonably have anticipated. A history of break-ins or muggings, for example, could establish that the owner knew about the risk and, therefore, should have strengthened security measures in response, according to Engle Martin & Associates, a loss-adjustment and claims-management provider.
The adjuster may also look at the property owners’ social media and online reviews for previous complaints about security. If the owners issued warnings about criminal activity and shared their attempts to improve security, for example, that can bolster their defense, said Natalie Prescott, casualty claims manager at Engle Martin.
Taking appropriate security measures and understanding your insurance coverage will go a long way toward helping you be prepared if a violent crime happens on your property. Of course, you should seek guidance from your insurance or legal professionals about your specific circumstances.