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Wright v. PRG Real Estate Management, Inc.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

July 15, 2015

Denise Wright, Appellant,
v.
PRG Real Estate Management, Inc., Franklin Pineridge Associates, and Karen Campbell Individually and in her Representative Capacity as an Agent of PRG Real Estate Management, Inc., Respondents

Heard January 15, 2015.

Appeal From Richland County. W. Jeffrey Young, Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2013-002157.

Jordan Christopher Calloway, S. Randall Hood, and Deborah G. Casey, McGowan Hood & Felder, LLC, all of Rock Hill; Whitney Boykin Harrison, McGowan Hood & Felder, LLC, of Columbia; Gerald Malloy, Malloy Law Firm, of Hartsville; and Edward Wayne Ridgeway, Jr., Burriss & Ridgeway, of Columbia, all for Appellant.

Brian Arnold Comer and Christian Stegmaier, Collins & Lacy, PC, of Columbia, both for Respondents.

FEW, C.J. THOMAS, J., concurs. LOCKEMY, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part in a separate opinion.

OPINION

Page 400

FEW, C.J.

Two men abducted Denise Wright at gunpoint from the parking lot of the apartment she leased at Wellspring Apartment Complex. Wright filed this lawsuit alleging Wellspring's owners and managers[1] (the respondents) were negligent in providing security and were liable under the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act. See S.C. Code Ann. § 39-5-10 to -180 (1985 & Supp. 2014). The circuit court granted summary judgment on both claims, finding the respondents had no duty to provide security for Wright and there was no evidence the respondents engaged in unfair or deceptive acts. We affirm.

I. Facts and Procedural History

In 2003, Wright leased an apartment at Wellspring, which is part of a planned unit development known as the " Harbison Community Association." Several public walking trails weave through the community. Wellspring and other properties within the community

Page 401

are accessible from these public trails.

On the night of September 18, 2008, Wright parked her car in Wellspring's parking lot and was walking to her apartment when two men held her at gunpoint and demanded money. When she responded she had none, they forced her to drive them to various automatic teller machines to make withdrawals from her account. After approximately thirty-five minutes, the men fled the car, and Wright called the police. The men have never been identified.

In 2011, Wright filed this action, alleging the respondents were negligent in failing to protect tenants from third-party criminal activity by not (1) providing adequate lighting in the common areas, (2) maintaining the overgrown shrubbery to an appropriate height, and (3) executing its courtesy officer program in a reasonable manner. She also brought an unfair trade practices claim, arguing a Wellspring employee committed unfair and deceptive acts in making statements concerning the safety and security of the apartment complex when Wright filled out her rental application.

The respondents moved for summary judgment on both claims, which the circuit court granted. The court first held the negligence cause of action failed as a matter of law because the respondents had no duty to protect Wright against third-party criminal activity. The court then found Wright presented no evidence the respondents engaged in unfair or deceptive acts.

II. Standard of Review

Rule 56(c), SCRCP, provides the circuit court shall grant summary judgment if " there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." When the circuit court grants summary judgment on a question of law, we review the ruling de novo. Town of Summerville v. City of N. Charleston, 378 S.C. 107, 110, 662 S.E.2d 40, 41 (2008). When the circuit court grants summary judgment on a question of fact, we view " the evidence and all inferences which can reasonably be drawn therefrom . . . in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Quail Hill, LLC v. Cnty. of Richland, 387 S.C. 223, 235, 692 S.E.2d 499, 505 (2010) (citation omitted). " [T]he non-moving party must offer some evidence that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to each element of the claim." Chastain v. Hiltabidle, 381 S.C. 508, 514, 673 S.E.2d 826, 829 (Ct.App. 2009). " [I]t is not sufficient for a party to create an inference that is not reasonable or an issue of fact that is not genuine." Town of Hollywood v. Floyd, 403 S.C. 466, 477, 744 S.E.2d 161, 166 (2013). We must affirm summary judgment where the non-moving party " fails to . . . establish the existence of an element essential to the party's case." Hansson v. Scalise Builders of S.C., 374 S.C. 352, 357, 650 S.E.2d 68, 71 (2007).

III. Negligence Claim

To prevail on a negligence claim, the plaintiff must demonstrate the defendant owed her a duty of reasonable care. See Bishop v. S.C. Dep't of Mental Health, 331 S.C. 79, 86, 502 S.E.2d 78, 81 (1998) (stating " the existence of a legal duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff" is " [a]n essential element in a cause of action for negligence" ). The existence or non-existence of a duty is a question of law. Jackson v. Swordfish Invs., L.L.C., 365 S.C. 608, 612, 620 S.E.2d 54, 56 (2005).

Generally, residential landlords do not owe tenants a duty to protect them from the criminal activity of third parties. Cramer v. Balcor Prop. Mgmt., Inc., 312 S.C. 440, 441 S.E.2d 317 (1994) ( Cramer I ). In Cramer I, the plaintiff asked our supreme court " to extend the duty [to provide security] owed by store owners and innkeepers to landlords." 312 S.C. at 442, 441 S.E.2d at 318. The supreme court pointed out store owners and innkeepers have a duty to protect their customers from foreseeable criminal activity because they invite the public onto their premises. 312 S.C. at 442-43, 441 S.E.2d at 318. The court explained this duty is based on the principle that " [o]ne who invites all may reasonably expect that all might not behave" and therefore bears responsibility for any injury resulting from the

Page 402

failure to take reasonable precautions against criminal activity. 312 S.C. at 443, 441 S.E.2d at 318 (quoting Cooke v. Allstate Mgmt. Corp., 741 F.Supp. 1205, 1213 (D.S.C. 1990) (applying South Carolina law)). The court concluded, however, there was a " fundamental distinction between the relationships of landlord/tenant and store owner/invitee and innkeeper/guest." Id. Accordingly, the court " decline[d] to find that landlords owe an affirmative duty to protect tenants from criminal activity merely by reason of the [landlord/tenant] relationship." 312 S.C. at 443, 441 S.E.2d at 318-19; see also Cramer v. Balcor Prop. Mgmt., Inc., 848 F.Supp. 1222 (D.S.C. 1994) ( Cramer II ) (relying on Cramer I to grant summary judgment on the tenant's negligence claim).[2]

Wright acknowledges landlords do not generally have a duty to provide security services and protect tenants from criminal activity. However, she makes three arguments to support her position that a duty exists under the facts of this case. For the reasons we explain below, we reject these arguments and find the circuit court correctly granted summary judgment.

A. "Particular Circumstances"

In Cramer I, the supreme court relied on the nature of apartment complexes as private places not held open to the public. See 312 S.C. at 443, 441 S.E.2d at 318 (relying on the fact the complex was " private and only for those specifically invited" ); see also Cooke, 741 F.Supp. at 1213 (" An apartment complex is not a place of public resort . . . . [and] is of its nature private and only for those specifically invited." (citation omitted)); Goode v. St. Stephens United Methodist Church, 329 S.C. 433, 441, 494 S.E.2d 827, 831 (Ct.App. 1997) (" [A]n apartment complex is not a place held open to the public and is instead a private place for only people who are specifically invited." ). The Cramer I court recognized, however, " A duty may arise under the particular circumstances of the individual case based upon a showing of negligence constituting the proximate cause of the loss." 312 S.C. at 443 n.1, 441 S.E.2d at 319 n.1 (emphasis added).

Wright relies on this language from Cramer I. She contends her case presents " particular circumstances" that give rise to a duty to protect her. Specifically, she argues Wellspring is " unique" and " analogous to a retail store or motel" because the " series of walking trails that weave through [Wellspring]" constitute " places to which the public are invited to enter and remain for extended periods." Because of these differences between Wellspring and the typical private apartment complex, Wright argues this case is not controlled by Cramer I. In particular, she argues (1) the " manner of access" to Wellspring--through the trails--is different from other apartment complexes because the common areas can be directly accessed by the public; (2) the respondents invited the public to the premises via the walking trails, (3) the respondents could reasonably expect the public to use the common areas--based on the nature and location of Wellspring--and (4) the existence of several public policy considerations. We find none of these circumstances distinguishes this case from Cramer I.

First, we find the evidence does not support Wright's assertion that the " rare" nature of Wellspring warrants different treatment from the apartment complexes in Cramer I, Cooke, and Goode. Rather, all the evidence in this case shows Wellspring is private property and its tenants are the only people the respondents specifically invited onto the premises. Under these circumstances, the trails at Wellspring are the same as public sidewalks or streets that adjoin any apartment complex because the trails--like sidewalks and streets--simply allow tenants and their invited guests to access the property. The fact that uninvited people may access the properties from the trails--like sidewalks and streets--does not change the analysis.

Wright argues, however, that Wellspring is different from the type of complex addressed in Cramer I, Cooke, and Goode because

Page 403

" Wellspring is part of the Harbison Community Association," which Wright points out " maintains a series of walking trails that weave through the community," " including one trail that goes directly through Wellspring." We find these arguments and the evidence upon which they are based do not remove this case from the general rule the supreme court explained in Cramer I. There, the court focused on whether the apartment owners or managers invited the public onto the premises--not on the physical layout of the apartment building or complex. 312 S.C. at 442-43, 441 S.E.2d at 318-19. In Goode, this court relied on Cramer I to find the apartment complex owed no duty because the public was not invited. 329 S.C. at 441, 494 S.E.2d at 831. Wright has cited no authority for focusing on the physical layout of an apartment building or complex as a basis for determining the existence of a duty. Cf. Cramer I, 312 S.C. at 443, 441 S.E.2d at 318 (" Tenants in a huge apartment complex, ...


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