Virginia Special Duties Of Protection: Basic – a Lawyer’s Overview

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Generally, under Virginia law one does not owe another a duty to protect against the criminal acts of another. However, there are special relationships between parties that create duties and consequent liability for wrongful death, brain injury and other personal injuries; as this three-post series explains.

“The general rule applies unless (a) a special relation exists between the actor and the third person which imposes a duty upon the actor to control the third person’s conduct, or (b) a special relation exists between the actor and the other which gives to the other a right to protection’.” Marshall v. Winston, 239 Va. 315, 318 (1990). “One who takes charge of a third person whom he knows or should know, to be likely to cause bodily harm to others if not controlled is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to control the third person to prevent him from doing such harm.” Id. Also, the Virginia Supreme Court in Marshall held where “some specific harm could be anticipated to [an identifiable] individual,” a public official has a “special duty owed to a special identifiable person,” violation of which “will give rise to civil liability”. Id. at 319.

Holles v. Sunrise Terrace, Inc., 257 Va. 131, 136 (1999)(emphasis added) observed that a special relationship only “provides a right of protection to a plaintiff by a defendant from the criminal acts of third persons that can be reasonably foreseeor anticipated”.Holles also observed that since the defendant was not even the landlord of the victim, “there was no right of protection inherent in their relationship separate and apart from any duties imposed by . . . contract”. Id. at 137.

Significantly, the Virginia Supreme Court in Holles additionally observed: “We have recognized a special relationship between a defendant and a plaintiff in cases involving a common carrier, and its passenger a business proprietor and its invitee, and an innkeeper and its guest.” Id. at 136. The relationship between an assistant principal and his captive students is more closely akin to these special relationships than to a jailer and the general public at large (as in Marshall) or to a limited management Company and a center resident (as in Holles). Moreover, in Holles, the Virginia Supreme Court emphasized that the aforesaid enumerated ones “are not exclusive examples of a special relationship”. Id. at 136 (emphasis added).