In Ford v. Edmondson Vill. Shopping Ctr. Holdings, LLC, 251 Md. App. 335, 254 A.3d 138 (2021), the Court of Special Appeals revisited the issue regarding the extent to which a landlord has a duty to protect its tenants from the criminal acts of third persons committed on the landlord’s property. In a premises liability case, the duty owed by the owner of the property to someone on the property begins with an analysis of the latter’s legal status on the property at the time of the incident. Although the Ford court ultimately remanded the case on the issue of whether the landlord owed the crime victim a duty of care, before doing so, it seemingly created a bright-line rule previously undeclared in Maryland case law: for purposes of premises liability, an employee of a commercial tenant has the same legal status on the leased property as the employer-tenant itself: a tenant, not a business invitee.
The underlying facts in Ford involve the shooting death of Deric Ford that occurred on August 8, 2017, inside the Dollar General store in the Edmonson Village Shopping Center (“Shopping Center”) in Baltimore City, Maryland. At the time of the shooting, Mr. Ford was working as the Dollar General store manager when he was shot by a robber who entered the store and held him at gunpoint. Mr. Ford’s estate (“Plaintiffs”) brought a wrongful death action in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against the owner of the Shopping Center, Edmonson Village Shopping Center Holdings, LLC (“Edmonson Village”), alleging that Edmonson Village failed to take adequate security measures in common areas of the Shopping Center, causing it to become a “haven” for foreseeable violent criminal activity, and thereby proximately causing the store manager’s murder.
Edmonson Village moved to dismiss the complaint arguing that as a matter of law, Mr. Ford was not a business invitee and that it did not owe Mr. Ford a duty to protect him from the criminal acts of third persons inside the Dollar General’s leased premises. The circuit court granted the motion ruling that, as an employee of a tenant working inside the leased premises, Mr. Ford’s status was that of a tenant, not a business invitee, and that Edmonson Village did not owe Mr. Ford a duty to protect him from the criminal acts of third parties committed inside the leased premises. Plaintiffs appealed. The issue on appeal was whether the circuit court erred in dismissing Plaintiff’s negligence claims on the ground that Edmondson Village did not owe Mr. Ford a duty to protect him from the criminal acts of third persons that took place on the Dollar General store premises.
In Maryland, “the duty owed by the owner of the property to someone on the property begins with an analysis of the latter’s legal status on the property at the time of the incident.” See Davis v. Regency Lane, LLC, 249 Md. App. 187, 207 (2021) (cleaned up). In analyzing Mr. Ford’s status on the premises at the time of the shooting, the court in Ford looked at various factors including the location on the property where the shooting occurred, the purpose for which Mr. Ford entered the property, the purpose Mr. Ford was serving at the time of the shooting, and the nature of Mr. Ford’s relationship with the Dollar General and Edmonson Village.
The court explained that “[a]lthough there is no Maryland case directly on point, other courts have held that for purposes of premises liability, an employee of a commercial tenant has the same status on the leased property as the employer-tenant itself.” Ford at 151. In the case at bar, “Mr. Ford entered Dollar General’s leased premises at Dollar General’s invitation, to work for Dollar General, and he was fulfilling that purpose when he was killed during a robbery inside the store. He was not invited to work inside the leased premises by Edmondson Village, and he did not enter the leased premises as a customer.” Id. at 152. Simply put, at the time of the shooting, Mr. Ford “was an employee of the tenant, i.e., an agent of Dollar General.” Id. at 151. Therefore, Mr. Ford’s status on the Dollar Store premises vis-à-vis Edmonson Village at the time of the shooting was that of a tenant. Id. at 142
The court further elaborated that, because the status of an individual on property may change depending on where he or she is located on the owner’s property at the time of the incident, Mr. Ford may well have been a business invitee of Edmonson Village had he been located on a common area of the Shopping Center when he was shot and killed. Id. at 152. However, that was not the issue. “The issue was Mr. Ford’s status while working for a tenant inside the tenant’s leased premises. Given his location and the purpose he was serving while there, it only makes sense that Mr. Ford would take on the status of his employer, i.e., that of a tenant.” Id.
The court ultimately vacated the judgment of the circuit court and remanded the case on the issue of duty, holding that “at this stage of the litigation [i.e., motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim], the facts are not sufficiently developed to answer the legal questions whether Edmonson Village owed Mr. Ford a duty to protect him from the criminal acts of third persons on the Dollar General premises by providing security measures in the common areas of the Shopping Center.” However, the principles expounded in the Ford court’s holding regarding Mr. Ford’s legal status on the property at the time of the shooting will undoubtedly be relied on in future litigation.
Written by associate Colin A. Grigg.