This article focuses on the responsibility of the landlord to reduce the risk of crime through prevention when he has knowledge of criminal activity on the leased premises.
Security measures and warnings
A landlord of an apartment complex is aware of recent assaults on tenants in the common areas of the property. The landlord has also received a composite drawing of the criminal and a description of the criminal’s mode of operation released by the local police.
The landlord does not undertake any of the security steps available to reduce the risk of a recurrence of the same or similar criminal activities.
The landlord laterrents a unit to a prospective tenant. The landlord does not disclose the recent criminal assaults or the criminal’s mode of operation. The tenant is not given a copy of the composite drawing of the perpetrator developed by the police. Further, the landlord represents the complex as safe and patrolled by security.
Later, the tenant is assaulted by the same perpetrator inside the tenant’s apartment unit, not in the areas open to the public. The tenant seeks to recover his money losses caused by the assault from the landlord. The tenant claims the landlord failed to disclose the prior assaults and misrepresented the safety of the apartment complex to induce the tenant to rent and occupy the unit.
The landlord claims he is not liable for the tenant’s injuries since the assault occurred within the tenant’s apartment unit and not in the common areas where the prior attacks occurred.
Here, the landlord is liable for injuries suffered by the tenant inside the apartment unit. The landlord knew of criminal activity on the premises and thus owed a duty to care for and protect the tenant by either:
- providing security measures in the common areas; or
- warning the tenant of the prior assaults. [O’Hara v. Western Seven Trees Corporation Intercoast Management (1977) 75 CA3d 798]
Based on the prior occurrences of criminal incidents, the likelihood of similar future assaults on tenants is reasonably foreseeable. When criminal activity is reasonably foreseeable due to known prior criminal activity, the landlord has a duty to take reasonable measures to prevent harm to persons on the property from future similar criminal activities.
The landlord’s conduct — failure to warn the new tenant about known criminal activity or provide adequate security — creates a risk that a tenant may be injured. Due to the landlord’s further failure to put security measures in place to prevent harm, the landlord must compensate the injured person by the payment of money, called damages.
Alternatively, the landlord could be liable for the tenant’s losses based on his intentional misrepresentation to the tenant regarding the safety of the apartment complex.
Editor’s note — Like a landlord, a homeowners’ association (HOA) has a duty to maintain the common areas since it has exclusive control over the maintenance of the common areas.
A HOA will be liable for money losses due to any injury caused by a dangerous condition created or allowed to exist by the association when it or its agents knew or should have known of the dangerous condition and the injury suffered was reasonably foreseeable. [Frances T. v. Village Green Owners Association (1986) 42 C3d 490]
Degree of foreseeability of harm
Consider a landlord of a shopping center who has exclusive control over the maintenance and repair of the common areas. Burglaries and purse snatchings have recently occurred on the premises. However, the landlord is unaware of this criminal activity in the shopping center.
At tenant association meetings, concerns about the lack of security in the center are addressed. The tenant association decides not to hire security guards on account of the expense. The tenants do not discuss or bring their security concerns to the attention of the landlord.
Later, a tenant’s employee is physically assaulted and injured on the leased premises. The employee claims the landlord is liable for his injuries since the landlord failed to provide security guards to protect employees of tenants from an unreasonable risk of harm.
The landlord claims he is not liable since the assault on the tenant’s employee was a type of crime that was unforeseeable.
Here, the landlord has no duty to provide security guards in the common areas. The prior crimes (theft) were not of a similar nature that would have made a physical assault foreseeable. [Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 C4th 666]
The landlord’s duty to provide protection is determined in part by balancing the foreseeability of harm against the burden imposed on the landlord to remove or prevent the harm. A high degree of foreseeability is necessary to impose a duty on a landlord or HOA to hire security guards.
Unless prior incidents of similar crimes are brought to the landlord’s attention, the high degree of foreseeability required to impose a duty on the landlord to take steps to prevent or eliminate future injury does not exist.
However, prior similar incidents are not always required to find that a landlord has a duty to take measures to prevent future criminal activity. The foreseeability of an injury is determined by the circumstances surrounding the injury and its occurrence, such as the nature, condition and location of the premises, and any prior incidents of similar or related activity in and around the premises. [Ann M., supra]
For example, consider a landlord of an office building and parking structure located in a neighborhood known to be a high-crime area. Many petty thefts and acts of vandalism have occurred on the premises, but no assaults have taken place. The security system maintained by the landlord to monitor the parking structure is in disrepair and does not function.
A visitor returning to his car enters the parking structure while an armed robbery is taking place. The visitor is shot and killed.
The visitor’s spouse seeks to recover money losses from the landlord, claiming the death of the spouse was reasonably foreseeable and could have been prevented by the landlord. The spouse also claims the landlord, who was aware of criminal activity on the premises, breached his duty to take measures to prevent further criminal activity.
The landlord claims the injury was not reasonably foreseeable since the prior criminal acts were not similar to the act causing the visitor’s death.
Is the landlord liable for failing to provide adequate security in the parking structure?
Yes! The landlord’s failure to properly maintain existing security features in light of prior criminal activity and the nature of a public parking structure is a breach of the duty of care the landlord owes to persons who enter the structure. Although the foreseeability of the type of criminal activity causing the death is low, the landlord is liable since the burden on him to maintain the existing security system is minimal.
Not only was the landlord aware of vandalism and thefts regularly occurring in the parking structure, the landlord knew the parking structure was located in a high-crime area. Further, parking structures by their dark and private nature tend to invite criminal activity. Thus, death resulting from a visitor’s accidental disruption of an armed robbery is reasonably foreseeable, even though no other armed assaults had previously occurred on the premises. [Gomez v. Ticor (1983) 145 CA3d 622]
No liability if not foreseeable
The extent of the security measures a landlord is required to provide is dictated by the degree of foreseeability of any future harm to others. [Ann M., supra]
If an injury is not foreseeable since the nature, condition and location of the leased premises do not indicate a person entering or using the property is at risk, a landlord is not liable if an injury, which security measures may have prevented, occurs on the premises.
Consider an apartment complex where previous criminal activity has not occurred. However, the community where the complex is located is generally known as a high-crime area.
The light bulb installed at the entrance to a tenant’s apartment burns out. The tenant asks the landlord to replace the light bulb. The lighting in the common area is functional.
Before the landlord replaces the bulb, the tenant is assaulted in his unit, suffering injuries. The tenant claims the landlord is liable for his injuries since the landlord has a duty to provide adequate lighting as a security measure.
The landlord claims he is not liable since the light bulb outside the tenant’s unit is for the tenant’s convenience, and is not intended as a security measure to protect tenants.
Here, the landlord is not liable. Prior criminal activity had not occurred on the premises that would put the landlord on notice of foreseeable risks. Thus, the landlord has no duty to take security precautions against criminal activity. Further, lighting alone is not considered an adequate security measure for deterring crime. [7735 Hollywood Boulevard Venture v. Superior Court (1981) 116 CA3d 901]
On-site, not off-site prevention
Tenants occupying an apartment complex have been victimized by numerous assaults and robberies in the garage area and courtyard. The landlord is aware of the criminal activity on the premises. In response to tenants’ complaints, he promises to install additional lighting.
A tenant parks on the street instead of in the garage due to the inadequate lighting in the common areas. One night, while parking on the street, the tenant is attacked and injured. The tenant claims the landlord is liable for his injuries since the landlord’s failure to provide adequate on-site lighting created a dangerous condition, forcing him to park on the street.
Is the landlord liable for the tenant’s injuries that occurred on a public street?
No! The landlord does not have a duty to protect a tenant from criminal acts committed by others that injure the tenant when he is not on the leased premises. [Rosenbaum v. Security Bank Corporation (1996) 43 CA4th 1084]
While the landlord’s conduct may have caused the tenant to park in the street, the tenant’s decision to park on the public street imposes no duty on the landlord to also eliminate dangerous off-premises conditions. A landlord’s duty of care is to prevent harm to others in the maintenance and management of the leased premises, not adjoining properties. [Calif. Civil Code §1714]
Prevent dangers within your control
The landlord’s duty of care is derived from his ability to prevent the existance of dangerous conditions from existing on the property he controls, not adjacent properties or public right of ways over which he has not taken control. A duty of care toward tenants is owed by the landlord only when a connection exists between the harm suffered by the tenant and the landlord’s care and maintenance of his property and any adjacent property over which he takes control.
The landlord’s failure to remove or prevent the risk of injury caused by a dangerous condition over which the landlord has control must contribute to the injuries suffered by a tenant or visitor before liability for injuries will be imposed on the landlord.
While the landlord in Rosenbaum failed to exercise care in the maintenance and repair of his premises, the landlord exercised no control over the public street, nor did he create or permit the dangerous condition in the street which caused the tenant’s injury.
The purpose for providing adequate lighting in the common areas of a leased premises is to help protect tenants or others against the risk of criminal attacks on the leased premises, not on a public street where the responsibility for lighting and security lies with government agencies. Thus, the lack of adequate lighting in the apartment complex was not the cause of the attack suffered by the tenant on the public street; it only caused the tenant to use the street. [Rosenbaum, supra]
Ability to control is not control
Now consider a landlord who is aware of criminal activity occurring on public property adjacent to the leased premises. A visitor leaves the leased premises at night via a public sidewalk adjacent to the premises. Lighting is not installed on the public side of the premises to illuminate the sidewalk.
While walking on the public sidewalk, the visitor is assaulted and injured. The visitor makes a demand on the landlord to recover money losses incurred due to his injuries. The client claims the landlord has a duty to protect patrons of tenants from criminal assaults on public sidewalks that provide access to the premises.
The visitor contends the landlord knew criminal activity had occurred on the sidewalk and had the power to exert control over the sidewalk by installing lights on the outside of the building — the sidewalk was the means of ingress and egress to the building.
Is the landlord liable for the client’s injuries due to a dangerous condition on adjacent property?
No! The landlord does not owe a duty of care to anyone to take control over adjoining property and remove or prevent injury from dangerous conditions existing on the adjoining property. The landlord is not liable for failing to take steps to prevent possible injuries from occurring on a public sidewalk adjacent to the leased premises that are regularly used by tenants for access to their units. [Donnell v. California Western School of Law (1988) 200 CA3d 715]
The landlord’s failure to provide lighting for a public sidewalk that the landlord does not own or control did not create the dangerous condition that caused the assault against the tenant’s client. The fact the landlord can influence or alter the condition of the public sidewalk by voluntarily adding lighting in no way indicates he has control over the sidewalk, which would impose liability for failure to provide off-site security. [Donnell, supra]