September 15, 2016

Oral argument in Texas premises liability case

By Caleb R. Trotter Attorney

Today, the Texas Supreme Court held oral argument in UDR Texas Properties, L.P. v. Petrie. Unfortunately, Justice Willett did not ask any questions. Nevertheless, at issue in the case is whether a Houston apartment complex can be held liable for failing to protect a man who was robbed and shot in the knee after parking in the complex’s visitor parking area in the middle of the night. The trial court rejected the lawsuit, holding that the apartment managers owed no duty to protect the man from criminal acts of third parties. The intermediate court of appeal reversed, holding that the attack was foreseeable. PLF filed an amicus brief in the case, and we previously discussed the issues here.

Counsel for UDR Texas Properties, R. Russell Hollenbeck, received few questions from the Justices, and focused his argument on the appellate court’s error in only considering whether the attack on Mr. Petrie was foreseeable. Instead of only considering foreseeability, Mr. Hollenbeck argued the Court should also balance the multiple factors relevant to whether private property owners can be burdened with taking measures to prevent the acts of third parties or face liability for the third parties’ actions. Aside from some clarifying questions about evidence (or the lack thereof) in the record as to whether the attack actually was foreseeable, the only significant question led to a discussion of whether a remand was necessary for a proper legal analysis.

Counsel for Mr. Petrie, David E. Chapin, fielded several questions to flesh out any evidence that may exist as to the reasonableness of the burdens that UDR Texas Properties would endure should the Court hold it had a duty to protect Mr. Petrie from harm. Chapin argued the burdens would only consist of placing additional lighting and asking resident “courtesy officers” (Houston police officers living in the apartment complex rent-free in exchange for periodic patrols) to patrol the visitor parking lot. Mentioning two amicus briefs, Justice Guzman expressed concern that the evidence may be insufficient to justify burdening UDR and potentially causing affordability issues for less well-off residents to offset the cost.

Regardless of the ultimate result, what did seem clear is that the Supreme Court will likely analyze all the applicable factors–even the ones overlooked by the appellate court.

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