One of the key elements in any Coral Springs personal injury lawsuit is determining what duty the defendant owed to the plaintiff. From there, it can be determined whether that duty was breached and whether that breach was the proximate cause of injury.
In many cases, this is a straightforward matter. For example, a driver has a duty to act with reasonable care. A caretaker has a duty to supervise. A nightclub has a duty to ensure adequate security.
However, some cases present questions of duty that aren’t as well established. The case of England v. Brianas, weighed recently by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, was one such instance.
It involves a victim of domestic violence, and whether she had a duty to warn her current boyfriend, friends and family of her ex’s threats and violent tendencies.
The relevant facts of the case begin in 2009, when the defendant/domestic violence victim for several months engaged in a romantic relationship with a man, later described as an abuser. The relationship ended when the man moved out-of-state. However, the following year, he returned and began contacting the defendant in an attempt to resume a relationship.
The ex-boyfriend was reportedly “enraged” when the defendant told him she didn’t believe they were compatible and declined to date him again. This resulted in a series of abusive/stalking behaviors. He allegedly left angry messages on her voicemail. He confronted her with profanity at a restaurant. He reportedly showed up at her home, leaving tire tracks in her driveway and yard. She reported seeing him follow her wherever she went.
Around this same time, the defendant began socializing with the plaintiff, and the two struck up a romantic relationship. At no point did the plaintiff ever reveal information about her ex-boyfriend or his behavior to her new boyfriend, the plaintiff.
More than a year into the relationship, when the new couple returned to her home one evening, they both were taken by surprise to find the defendant had broken into her home through the basement. The ex-boyfriend attacked the plaintiff, stabbing him multiple times, and inflicting serious wounds.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his (now-former) girlfriend, contending she had a legal duty to warn him of her ex-boyfriend’s actions.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, citing precedent holding that private persons have no general duty to protect others from third-party criminal acts.
In its review, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted there are some special circumstances in which courts have indicated private citizens due have such a duty. For example, it has been ruled that employers owe a duty to protect workers from imminent danger while at work. It’s also been found that restaurant staffers owe a reasonable duty to patrons to keep them safe from the actions of unruly teens, whom they failed to immediately remove from the premises. Schools have a duty of reasonable supervision of students.
In fact, there are numerous instances of special circumstances where a duty can be established. The plaintiff argued this was a “special circumstance,” and the defendant had a duty to warn.
The court found that was not the case. It cited cases in both Iowa (Fiala v. Rains) and Minnesota (Patzwald v. Krey) in which victims of domestic violence were accused of negligence by failure to warn of the violent tendencies of old love interests. However, in both cases, the court found no special relationship existed between the plaintiff and defendant that would have required a domestic violence victim to warn of this possibility, particularly considering the attackers in both cases had never directly threatened the plaintiffs.
The court indicated that in this case, the alleged conduct by the ex-boyfriend prior to the attack was insufficient as a matter of law, so as to make the attack a foreseeable risk requiring the defendant to warn the plaintiff.
This is not to say there are no other circumstances in which such a duty could exist. For example, if direct threats against a new paramour are made, a case for duty to warn might be established.
Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
England v. Brianas, June 18, 2014, New Hampshire Supreme Court
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