Plaintiff attorneys often find creative ways to hold people financially responsible for the wrongs of another. In A.R. v. Tomkins, 2015-Ohio-3970, the plaintiffs sued a middle-aged woman, Elaine Tomkins, for the sexual misconduct of her husband, Richard Tomkins. The victim was an under-aged boy who assisted Mr. Tomkins in his work as a handyman. The abuse occurred at a nearby pool club and in the Tomkins’ home.
If you are wondering how Mrs. Tomkins could be sued for her husband’s sex crimes, the plaintiffs used a premises liability theory. In other words, the mere fact that Mrs. Tomkins owned her home, and the sexual abuse happened in her home, made her potentially liable.
In Ohio, property owners (i.e. “premises owners”) owe certain responsibilities to people who are invited onto their property. A premises owner must (1) maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition, and (2) warn invitees of hidden dangers. In Tomkins, the plaintiffs argued that Elaine Tomkins was liable under a premises liability theory. They alleged that Elaine failed to warn or protect the under-aged victim from her husband’s sexual abuse and, therefore, failed to “maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition.”
The Cincinnati trial court did not outright reject this theory. Instead, the trial court rejected plaintiffs’ claim due to Elaine’s lack of knowledge. Richard Tomkins actively concealed the abuse. The victim never reported the abuse. And Elaine neither witnessed nor was aware of her husband’s pedophilic behavior. Without knowledge of the abuse, there was nothing for Elaine to protect or warn against.
On appeal, the decision was upheld. The First District Ohio Court of Appeals held that Elaine did not know what was going on between her husband and the victim. A.R. v. Tomkins, 1st Dist. No. C-140668, 2015-Ohio-3970. Elaine only saw the victim on her property on one occasion, and “there was nothing particularly noteworthy about that encounter.” Id. at ¶2. The Court determined, “the record fails to demonstrate that Elaine knew or should have known that [the victim] was in peril.” Id. at ¶8.
Although Elaine ultimately won, she was still exposed to litigation. It is important to keep in mind just how far-reaching premises liability can be. If you own or occupy property, it is important to be aware of your legal duties.
A link to the Court’s opinion can be found here.