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Can businesses owe a duty to protect customers on their premises from the criminal acts of others? In a test case concerning a horrific attack on three hotel guests, the High Court has ruled that, in certain circumstances, the answer to that question is yes.
The women were staying with their family in a large urban hotel with more than 1,000 rooms. A thief passed within eight metres of a lobby security guard before making his way up to the seventh floor and entering one of their rooms, the door to which had been left on the latch by a family member.
When he was disturbed as he loaded money and jewellery into a suitcase, the thief attacked the three women, inflicting grave injuries by hitting them over the head with a hammer. One of them suffered catastrophic brain damage and is now incapable of managing her own affairs. The thief was subsequently convicted of three counts of attempted murder and jailed for life.
After the women launched proceedings against the owner of the hotel, the latter accepted that it owed guests a duty to take such care as in all the circumstances of the case was reasonable to keep them and their property reasonably safe whilst they were on the premises. However, it denied that that duty extended to taking reasonable steps to protect guests against the criminal actions of third parties.
In ruling on the matter, the Court found that the attack was reasonably foreseeable, although the likelihood of such an incident occurring was extremely low. The fact that the perpetrator was intent on a criminal act did not relieve the owner of potential liability. In those circumstances, the owner did owe the broader duty of care contended for by the women's legal team.
In dismissing their damages claims, however, the Court went on to rule that that duty of care had not been breached. Whilst security arrangements at the hotel were not flawless, the evidence as a whole established that the owner took seriously its duty to maintain the safety of its guests and had taken reasonable care to fulfil its duty in this instance.