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Doe v. Manheimer

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Doe (Plaintiff) sued Manheimer (Defendant) after she was raped in an area of his yard with overgrown vegetation that allowed the assailant’s actions to be hidden from those on the sidewalk or street.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A landowner is not liable for injuries caused when a pedestrian is raped in an area of the landowner’s property that has vegetation shielding the property from view.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff was on the sidewalk in front of  Defendant’s property in her capacity as a meter reader. An assailant pulled her from the sidewalk onto an area of Defendant’s property that was surrounded by large bushes and tall grass and raped her. Because of the vegetation, this area was shielded from view from the sidewalk and street. Plaintiff’s injuries were extensive and she sued Defendant, claiming that he was negligent in failing to remove the overgrown vegetation when he knew that the neighborhood was a high crime area and that criminals might use the overgrown area to hide while committing crimes against pedestrians. Defendant presented no evidence and moved for a directed verdict. The jury found for Plaintiff and awarded her $540,000. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion and set aside the verdict, stating that as a matter of law the jury could not find that the condition of Defendant’s yard was a substantial factor in causing Plaintiff’s injuries and therefore there was no proximate cause. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue.

    Is a landowner liable for injuries caused when a pedestrian is raped in an area of the landowner’s property that has vegetation shielding the property from view?

    Held.

    (Glass, J.) No. A landowner is not liable for injuries caused when a pedestrian is raped in an area of the landowner’s property that has vegetation shielding the property from view. Liability for dangerous conditions on a landowner’s property is limited to injuries caused by physical contact with those conditions. Even if the court was willing to expand liability past this point, here the relationship between the vegetation and Plaintiff’s harm was accidental. There could have been other places on Defendant’s property, not created by vegetation, that would have also shielded the assailant’s actions. Not every item on a landowner’s property that could shield a violent crime can be the basis for a finding of negligence because of the possibility of crime in an urban neighborhood. This court cannot extend the scope of what is a foreseeable risk caused by overgrown vegetation or accumulated debris beyond those injuries caused by physical contact. Here, the injury suffered by Plaintiff was not of the type that made Defendant’s failure to care for his property allegedly negligent. When negligent conduct is a “cause in fact†of an injury it is not automatically also a “substantial factor†in that injury for purposes of establishing proximate cause. Affirmed.

    Discussion.

    The court pointed out that there was no evidence presented showing that the landowner had any reason to realize and act on the idea that overgrown vegetation would lead to violent criminal activity on his property. There was also no evidence presented that individuals who spent time in an adjacent vacant lot had ever threatened or assaulted pedestrians or local residents.


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