Should Host Have Legal Duty to Warn Guests That the Host Has Been Threatened by Criminals?

In Apolinar v. Thompson (Tex. Ct. App. 1992), Charles Thompson invited Roger Apolinar to house-sit while Thompson was out of town. While staying at Thompsons’ house, Apolinar was attacked by some third party. Apolinar sued, claiming that “Thompson had received harassing phone calls and threats and, therefore, Thompson had a duty [as property owner] to warn Apolinar or make conditions reasonably safe.” The court concluded that Apolinar’s case could go forward, so that presumably the jury could eventually find that Thompson was negligent in not having warned Apolinar of the threat.

The court says nothing about whether Apolinar was being paid for the house-sitting, which suggests that the precedential force of the opinion extends to unpaid house-sitters as well. Likewise, the court’s reasoning extends to any “invitee or licensee,” which would include social visitors and not just people who stay overnight. And the court’s reasoning is in no way limited to the occasional situations in which the homeowner is in in some measure culpable for being in danger of attack, for instance because he is a criminal gang member who has been threatened by a rival gang member.

Is this a sound rule? Consider this hypothetical: A woman has been credibly threatened by an ex-husband, ex-boyfriend, stalker, or would-be “honor killer” — or for that matter by a political or religious terrorist who has targeted her for violence because she allegedly blasphemed Islam, or performed abortions, or what have you. There is a plausible danger that the person will at some point break into her house and attack whoever is there, or even shoot through the windows. (Perhaps something like this has happened in the recent past.)

Does the woman have the duty to warn all her party guests of the risk, or face negligence liability if she fails to warn and one of the guests is injured in an attack? Or should she have the right to keep her peril private, and not become the object of shunning, pity, and gossip?

Variations: Say the woman is a small businesswoman; should she have the duty to warn her customers that she is in peril of attack (recognizing that issuing such warnings might well drive her out of business)? Again, assume that some such attack is foreseeable, and it’s foreseeable that the attack might cause collateral damage to neighbors.

Or say that she is an employee of a business that is open to the public, and her employer learns that she is targeted. Does the employer have a duty to warn her customers of the peril of an attack that might cause collateral damage to them — or to dismiss the employee from her job, in order to avoid this attack? (The employer has the right to dismiss the employee from her job; the question is whether it ought to have the duty, under negligence law, to do so or face the risk of liability if an attack happens and injures a bystander.)