The Texas Supreme Court has been busy. This week 5 opinions have been issued addressing a variety of topics including divorce, defamation, premises liability for third party crimes, insurance policy interpretation, and accessibility of student records. The Court’s holdings regarding a premises owner’s liability for third party crimes and the interpretation of an insurance policy provision are of particular interest.
UDR Texas Properties L.P. et al. v. Alan Petrie – 15-0197:
In this case, Mr. Alan Petrie sued the premises owners (UDR, et al.) following a robbery and assault that occurred as he waited in the parking lot to pick up a co-worker. The trial court held that the premises owners owed no duty to Petrie; however, the court of appeals reversed based on consideration of unreasonableness and foreseeability “as a whole, not as separate elements requiring independent proof.”
The Texas Supreme Court reversed and rendered judgment for the premises owners. The Court clarified that the factors laid out in Timberwalk are meant as aids in the evaluation of foreseeability. Because the Timberwalk factors do not weigh the risk against the burden imposed on the owner or on society in reducing or eliminating the risk, the factors “cannot, without more, determine the reasonableness of a risk of harm.” In other words, the Court concluded that the appellate court incorrectly held that unreasonableness and foreseeability should be considered as a whole rather than as separate elements. The failure of Petrie to offer any evidence on the burden faced by the premises owner to reduce or prevent the risk of harm amounted to a failure to present evidence on an essential element of the claim; therefore, judgment was rendered in favor of the premises owners.
Elie Nassar and Rhonda Nassar v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co., et al. – 15-0978:
In this case, the Texas Supreme Court considered whether a homeowners’ insurance policy was ambiguous. This question arose out of a dispute over whether the “dwelling” provision or the “other structures” provision of the policy covered damage to the homeowners’ fence. The trial court concluded that the fence fell under the “other structures” provision of the policy. The court of appeals affirmed.
After applying the well-settled rules of contract interpretation, the Texas Supreme Court concluded that the Nassars’ interpretation of the relevant policy language was reasonable and Liberty Mutual’s interpretation required an inferential leap rendering its interpretation unreasonable; therefore, the Court reversed and remanded the case.