DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/28/2012
OKTIBBEHA COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. LEE J. HOWARD
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: SEAN ROBERTS GUY SEAN J. TINDELL
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEES: DAVID L. SANDERS
BEFORE GRIFFIS, P.J., ROBERTS AND FAIR, JJ.
ROBERTS, J., FOR
¶1. Bobby Batiste murdered his roommate, Andreas Galanis, in the apartment that they shared at 21 Apartments in Starkville, Mississippi. Andreas's mother, Katerina Galanis, and his sister, Christina Galanis, (the Galanises) sued Batiste and the companies that owned and managed 21 Apartments. According to the Galanises, 21 Apartments negligently failed to warn Andreas of Batiste's violent tendencies. 21 Apartments moved for summary judgment and argued that there was no evidence that it had actual or constructive knowledge of Batiste's propensity for violence, so it had no duty to warn Andreas. The Oktibbeha County Circuit Court agreed. The Galanises appeal. Finding no error, we affirm.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
¶2. 21 Apartments began leasing apartments during August 2006. Located near the campus of Mississippi State University, 21 Apartments was marketed toward college students. Batiste was one of 21 Apartments' original tenants.
¶3. During 2007, 21 Apartments hired Ambling Management Company LLC to manage the apartments. Ambling instituted a policy of performing background checks through an outside service on all people who applied for new leases and existing tenants who sought to renew their leases. If the applicant was ineligible to lease an apartment due to his prior criminal history, the applicant received a letter informing him of the negative results. 21 Apartments did not receive a comprehensive list of the applicant's criminal record.
¶4. When Batiste sought to renew his lease during 2007, his background check indicated that he had a prior criminal history. Consequently, 21 Apartments told Batiste that his renewal application had been denied. A few months later, attorney James A. Williams faxed a letter to 21 Apartments and explained that Batiste was "not a convicted felon." Williams further explained that Batiste had been charged with credit-card fraud. According to Williams, although Batiste had pled guilty, Batiste's case had been "non-adjudicated, which means that he submitted to probation, but [he] was not convicted." Williams attached a copy of Batiste's non-adjudication order. Because 21 Apartments' policy prohibited leasing to anyone who had been convicted of a crime, and Batiste had not been adjudicated guilty of credit-card fraud, 21 Apartments allowed him to renew his lease.
¶5. Months later, Andreas applied to lease an apartment. He was instantly approved. To help tenants find roommates, 21 Apartments provided a questionnaire regarding each tenant's study habits, social lifestyle, and other factors. Although 21 Apartments notified tenants of potential roommates and introduced them, it was up to the individual tenants to select a roommate. In other words, 21 Apartments did not force any particular tenants to share an apartment. 21 Apartments introduced Andreas and Batiste because they were both football fans, and they were both older than traditional college students. After Andreas and Batiste met, they chose to become roommates.
¶6. Leasing consultant Lorenzo Butler thought that Andreas and Batiste were close friends. During his deposition, Butler said that Andreas and Batiste "were together all [of] the time." Andreas and Batiste both told Butler that they liked living together. According to bookkeeper Debbie Owen, Andreas and Batiste "were best friends." Owen added that "wherever you saw [Andreas or Batiste], you saw the other."
¶7. However, on March 6, 2008, Andreas told Owen that his debit card had been used without his permission, and he suspected that Batiste was responsible. Owen advised Andreas to file a report with the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Department. Andreas followed Owen's advice and spoke with Deputy Steven Woodruff. Deputy Woodruff asked Andreas if he wanted to file charges against Batiste, but Andreas declined. Andreas told Deputy Woodruff that he wanted to try to resolve the issue with Batiste.
¶8. Sometime after Andreas returned to his apartment, Batiste killed him. Batiste was later convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Batiste v. State, 121 So.3d 808, 823 (¶1) (Miss. 2013). On direct appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed Batiste's conviction and sentence. Id.
¶9. In March 2009, the Galanises sued 21 Apartments and Batiste. According to the Galanises, 21 Apartments "knew or . . . should have known that [it] failed to provide . . . reasonabl[y] safe premises for Andreas . . . ." The Galanises also claimed that 21 Apartments was liable for Andreas's death because it had failed to warn him of Batiste's criminal history or his violent tendencies "before assigning him to share living space with . . . Batiste." ¶10. More than three years later, 21 Apartments filed a motion for summary judgment. Among other things, 21 Apartments argued that summary judgm ent was appropriate because it did not have actual or constructive knowledge that Batiste was a violent person, so it had no duty to warn Andreas of Batiste's violent personality. The circuit court agreed and granted 21 Apartments' motion for summary judgment. The Galanises appeal.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
¶11. An appellate court conducts a de novo review of a trial court's decision to grant a motion for summary judgment. Kilhullen v. Kansas City S. Ry., 8 So.3d 168, 174 (¶14) (Miss. 2009). Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that summary judgment "shall be rendered . . . if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." We must review the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Kilhullen, 8 So.3d at 174 (¶14).
¶12. To overcome a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings, but his response . . . must set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial." M.R.C.P. 56(e). The Mississippi Supreme Court has recently held:
[I]n a summary[-]judgment hearing, the burden of producing evidence in support of, or in opposition to, the motion is a function of Mississippi rules regarding the burden of proof at trial on the issues in question. The movant bears the burden of persuading the trial judge that: (1) no genuine issue of material fact exists, and (2) on the basis of the facts established, he is entitled to [a] judgment as a matter of law. The movant bears the burden of production if, at trial, he would bear the burden of proof on the issue raised. In other words, the movant only bears the burden of production where [he] would bear the burden of proof at trial. Furthermore, summary judgment is appropriate when the nonmoving party has failed to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to the party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.
Karpinsky v. Am. Nat'l Ins. Co., 109 So.3d 84, 88-89 (¶11) (Miss. 2013) (quotations omitted).
I. DUTY TO WARN
¶13. The Galanises claim that the circuit court erred when it held that 21 Apartments did not have a duty to warn Andreas that Batiste was a violent person. According to the Galanises, the circuit court should have found that 21 Apartments had actual or constructive knowledge of Batiste's violent personality. Therefore, the Galanises reason that 21 Apartments had a duty to warn Andreas of Batiste's personality.
¶14. This is clearly a premises-liability case. "Premises liability is a theory of negligence that establishes the duty owed to someone injured on a landowner['s] premises as a result of 'conditions or activities' on the land." Double Quick Inc. v. Moore, 73 So.3d 1162, 1165 (¶8) (Miss. 2011) (quoting Doe v. Jameson Inn Inc., 56 So.3d 549, 553 (¶11) (Miss. 2011)). To successfully demonstrate negligence, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the defendant had a duty "to conform to a specific standard of conduct for the protection of others against the unreasonable risk of injury"; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) there is a causal relationship between the breach and the alleged injury; and (4) the plaintiff suffered "injury or damages." Rein v. Benchmark Constr. Co., 865 So.2d 1134, 1143 (¶30) (Miss. 2004). The primary issue in this case is whether 21 Apartments had a duty to warn Andreas that Batiste was a violent person. We are mindful that "the existence . . . of a duty of care is a question of law." Id. We review questions of law de novo. Pascagoula Sch. Dist. v. Tucker, 91 So.3d 598, 603 (¶8) (Miss. 2012).
¶15. It is undisputed that Andreas was an invitee. "[A] property owner is not the insurer of an invitee's safety. Instead, a 'premises owner must employ reasonable care to protect an invitee from 'reasonably foreseeable injuries at the hands of another.'" Holmes v. Campbell Props. Inc., 47 So.3d 721, 725 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (quoting Newell v. S. Jitney Jungle Co., 830 So.2d 621, 623 (¶6) (Miss. 2002)). "An assault on the premises is reasonably foreseeable if the defendant had either: (1) actual or constructive knowledge of the assailant's violent nature, or (2) actual or constructive knowledge an atmosphere of violence existed on the premises." Id. "[T]he important component of the existence of the duty is that the injury is 'reasonably foreseeable, ' and thus it is appropriate for the trial judge to decide." Rein, 865 So.2d at 1143 (¶29) (quoting Lyle v. Mladinich, 584 So.2d 397, 399 (Miss. 1991)).
¶16. The Galanises do not argue that there was an atmosphere of violence at 21 Apartments. Instead, they argue that 21 Apartments had actual or constructive knowledge that Batiste was a violent person. According to the Galanises, 21 Apartments should have realized that Batiste was a violent person based on a "resident-concern form" that Batiste submitted regarding one of his previous roommates.
¶17. Before Batiste and Andreas were roommates, Batiste's roommates were Arthur Hosey and Demarcus Cousins. Approximately one year before Batiste killed Andreas, Batiste submitted a resident-concern form regarding Hosey's poor ...