October 24th, 2011
By Colin McCarthy, J.D., Robinson & Wood, San Jose, CA
We’ve discussed premises liability, landlord duties, and obvious dangers, among other things. Today we’ll discuss an issue in California that gets people excited – a landlord’s duty to prevent criminal acts.
Nothing gets people more excited than the idea that a landlord might have an affirmative duty to prevent or intervene in the actions of a third party to prevent a person on his or her property from becoming the victim of a crime. On the face of it, this duty feels like it falls outside the scope of a landlord’s duties. Isn’t that the job of the police? A property owner can’t be a substitute for the police and common sense, the argument goes.
That may be true, but if we rely on common negligence principles – and California courts do – then liability can attach in certain circumstances for failure to take steps to mitigate against such third party criminal conduct.
The owner/lessor/occupier/person who controls the property has a “general duty [which] includes not only the duty to inspect the premises in order to uncover dangerous conditions, but, as well, the duty to take affirmative action to control the wrongful acts of third persons which threaten [persons on the property] where [he] has reasonable cause to anticipate such acts and the probability of injury resulting therefrom.”*
The key to attaching liability is the part about having “reasonable cause to anticipate” the criminal activity and the likelihood of harm. In other words, if the landlord knows that his rented property is being used by violent drug dealers to conduct criminal activity, he may have a duty to act. If the landlord knows that the lack of lighting in the property’s parking garage has contributed to muggings, he may have a duty to act to prevent injury.
The scope of the duty to act is tied to the knowledge of potential injury which would occur by the third party criminal act. As we’ve previously seen in my post about replacing window glass, the scope of the requested action there was very small: replace a window pane for $17 dollars. The duty imposed there was not to hire security guards to prevent murder, but merely to replace a broken window pane that was close to the door handle and lock. It is not unreasonable to think that someone might have broken into the house if the pane was not replaced.
A different situation arises if the integrity of the property is not an issue but knowledge of criminal activity is. Fights happen. A landlord is not usually liable for a one-off fight. But he may be if he knows that fights are continually occurring on his property. The scope of the duty for a landlord or business owner to provide something akin to security guards exists “only when ‘heightened’ foreseeability of third party criminal activity on the premises exists—shown by prior similar incidents or other indications of a reasonably foreseeable risk of violent criminal assaults in that location.”** Does the California rule make sense?
* Taken from Taylor v. Centennial Bowl, Inc., 65 Cal. 2d 114, 121 (Cal.1966)
** Taken from Delgado v. Trax Bar & Grill, 36 Cal. 4th 224, 240 (Cal. 2005)
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