Law School Case Brief
District of Columbia v. Doe - 524 A.2d 30 (D.C. 1987)
While a heightened showing of foreseeability is required in cases involving intervening criminal conduct, this heightened showing does not require previous occurrences of the particular type of harm, but can be met instead by a combination of factors that give defendants an increased awareness of the danger of a particular criminal act.
Jane Doe, a 10-year-old, fourth grade student at Plummer Elementary School, located at Texas, was chosen by her teacher to supervise a class of second graders while their teacher went to another area of the building for supplies. Shortly thereafter, Jane was lured away from the second floor classroom by an unknown intruder. The man told her the principal wanted to see her, and that he was outside. As they headed for the rear stairwell exit, the man put his arm around Jane's neck, drew a knife, pressed it to her back and forced her outside. They left the school through the unlocked rear door and through the open gate of the security fence surrounding the back of the school. The man forced Jane across the street and into the woods of Fort Chaplin Park, where he raped her. After the attack, Jane ran back to the unlocked front door of the school and reported the incident. Appellees, Jane Doe and her mother and next friend, Mary Doe, brought a negligence claim against the city. Testimony at trial showed that although the playground adjacent to the rear of the school building was surrounded by a 10- to 12-foot high security fence, the gate on this fence usually was left open and unlocked. The back door, through which the intruder forced Jane Doe, consisted of a set of double doors, which, if in proper working order, were designed to close and lock automatically. Because of an alignment problem, the doors did not close tightly and automatically lock; the doors could be locked only if an effort was made to do so. Similar doors in the front of the school also were not closing properly at the time of the incident. An intercom system, which connected the classrooms to the principal's office, was malfunctioning at the time. Testimony also indicated that unaccompanied, unknown adult males often roamed the school hallways without challenge. Appellees presented a security expert, Dale Moul, who testified that the school's normal security procedures should have included locking the back gate during school hours, proper maintenance of the automatic locking mechanisms on the doors, visual surveillance and screening of visitors, the issuance of passes to visitors, and maintenance of an operational intraschool intercom. Mr. Moul stated his opinion that in the absence of at least some of these security measures, the city did not comply with a reasonable standard of care for protection of the children at the school. As a defense, the city argued that the evidence presented by the appellees was legally insufficient to permit a reasonable inference of foreseeability of the intervening criminal act with the degree of specificity that the Supreme Court’s decision in Lacy v. District of Columbia demanded. The city asserted that, in order for it to be under a duty to protect against the precise harm which came about, sexual assault by an intruder, the attack had to be foreseeable, and that absent a prior occurrence of such a crime on the grounds of Plummer, such attack was unforeseeable as a matter of law. In turn, appellees had consistently argued that the city could foresee the attack, based on its knowledge of the surrounding high crime area, and its failure to implement adequate security, which allowed access to the school from intruders in this high crime area. The Superior Court of the District of Columbia entered a judgment in favor of appellees. Thereafter, the city appealed.
Under the circumstances of the case at hand, can the District of Columbia be held liable for damages?
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals noted that while a city was not the insurer of the complete safety of school children, nor was it strictly liable for any injuries that may occur to them, it has an obligation to exercise reasonable and ordinary care for the protection of pupils to whom it provides an education. Where an injury was caused by the intervening criminal act of a third party, a defendant was liable for negligence only if the danger of that act should have been reasonably anticipated and protected against. If the intervening act can fairly be said to be that which could not have been reasonably anticipated, plaintiff may not look beyond the intervening act for his recovery. In the case at bar, the court held that the probative evidence presented by the victim of a criminally active environment raised a factual issue as to the foreseeability of intervening criminal conduct sufficient for submission to the jury.
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