Milwaukee Parking Lot Ordinance Creates Potential Liability for Commercial Property Owners

October 5, 2018

Criminal activity in Milwaukee public parking lots has received a recent surge in media attention.  Reports of vehicle break-ins and vehicle and personal property theft are common, with some estimating as much as 40% of crimes committed in downtown Milwaukee are vehicle break-ins.  After several high-profile instances of this type of crime at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station towards the end of 2017, Milwaukee alderman, Robert Bauman, introduced ordinances intended to curb parking lot crime.

Milwaukee Parking Lot Ordinance

In March of 2018, the Milwaukee Common Council revised and enacted the proposed ordinances putting the responsibility of enhanced parking lot security on property and business owners to establish enhanced security measures in parking lots.  Specifically, the ordinances apply to any parking lot in the C9 zoning district in downtown Milwaukee where there is a business of storing vehicles or where the owner of a vehicle is charged a fee to park it there.

The City’s parking lot license ordinance now provides that when applying for a license to conduct a parking lot business in downtown Milwaukee, the applicant must submit a plan of operation for the business. This plan needs to include a description of the security measures the business will implement for the protection of parking patrons and their vehicles.  In addition, the license applicant is also required to have a personal meeting with a representative from the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) for the purpose of presenting the security plan and conducting a crime prevention analysis of the parking premises.

Beyond the initial application stage, a license to operate a parking business can be revoked if the MPD determines the security plan in place is inadequate.  In addition, if a parking lot experiences two or more security incidents in a given month, the MPD may require the business operating the parking lot to implement extra security measures.  The ordinance defines a “security incident” as “any incident on the premises of a parking place that results in criminal harm to parking patrons, vandalism of vehicles, theft of vehicles or property inside vehicles, or any other incidents that threaten patron health, safety and welfare.”  The additional security measures which the MPD may impose include (i) the requirement that at least one parking lot attendant be present at all times a vehicle is parked in the lot, (ii) installation of a security lighting system throughout the entire parking lot premises, (iii) implementation of a security video surveillance system, (iv) construction of a security fence of at least six feet in height which surrounds the premises, and (v) construction of an elevated platform which must be staffed with a parking lot attendant whenever a vehicle is parked in the lot.

Parking Lot Owner Liability

The enactment of the parking lot ordinance also raises potential civil liability issues.

A common way property owners, especially commercial property owners, are held liable for harm caused to frequenters of the property is through a legal doctrine known as negligence per se.  Under negligence per se, when a person or business violates a statute or ordinance, and that violation results in harm to a person, the violator of the statute or ordinance may be liable for any damages resulting from the harm.  Additionally, the person who was harmed must be a member of the class of people the statute is intended to protect.

It’s easy to see how a parking lot business owner could be held liable for harm to a parking patron under the negligence per se doctrine.  The Milwaukee parking lot ordinance was enacted for the purpose of protecting parking patrons and their property from harm, including physical harm to the patron or damage to the patron’s vehicle.  Thus, parking lot patrons are included in the class of people the ordinance aims to protect.  Hypothetically, if a parking lot patron was the victim of a crime, and the parking lot operator failed to take any enhanced security measures required by the MPD under the ordinance, the parking lot operator could have liability under the negligence per se doctrine.

Bottom Line

The new Milwaukee parking lot ordinance was enacted to prevent crime, but it also creates additional requirements that parking lot business owners must adhere to.  Furthermore, it increases the risk of civil liability for parking lot owners under the negligence per se theory.  For these reasons, owners of businesses that charge patrons for parking on the business’ property are well-advised to understand the new parking lot ordinance, and what’s required of them to comply with it.

Conor Leedom
Conor Leedom