The Alabama Supreme Court recently considered a suit in which a fire at an apartment building, caused by arson, resulted in the death of one resident, and injuries to six others. The residents sued the owner and builder of the complex, which had been constructed 22 years before the fire, alleging claims of negligence and wantonness.
The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the owner and builder, holding that they had no duty to protect the residents from injuries caused by the criminal acts of a third party, and that the residents’ claims were barred by the 20-year rule of repose.
The Court, in Collins v Scenic Homes, Inc. __ S0.2d __ (Ala. June 30, 2009), reversed the entry of summary judgment. Recognizing that in general, “absent special relationships or circumstances, a person has no duty to protect another from criminal acts of a third person,” Moye v. AG Gaston Motels, Inc., 499 So.2d 368 (Ala. 1986), the Court held that the general rule was inapplicable because the residents alleged that the defendants had a duty to construct and operate:
… a reasonably safe apartment building, equipped with appropriate exits and fire suppression safeguards designed to reduce the risk of injury as a result of fire, regardless of the origin of the fire. … Indeed, it is a forseeable risk that a fire at an apartment complex, however started, will cause harm to the inhabitants of the complex if the premises owner fails to provide adequate fire suppression safeguards and an adequate means of escape from the fire.
The Court distinguished the residents’ claims from previous cases decided under the general rule because in each of the previous cases, the plaintiff “alleged that the premises owner had a duty to prevent the intervening criminal act from occurring.”
The Court also held that the plaintiffs claims were not barred by the 20-year rule of repose, atating that a cause of action accrues “on the date the first legal injury occurs, but not necessarily from the date of the act causing the injury.” Smith v. Medtronic, Inc., 607 So.2d 156 (Ala. 1992). In Collins, “the residents did not have a viable and cognizable claim against Scenic Homes until the fire occurred and the residents suffered injuries as a result.”