Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Landlord's Duties for Criminal and Terrorist Attacks

Although there is no specific body of terrorist case law, legal analysis of landlord's liability for acts of terrorism will probably rely on the general body of law involving landlord liability for criminal actions of third parties.

Unless there is a lease provision obligating the landlord to provide security measures, a lawsuit will be based upon a negligence (tort) theory. The required elements for asserting a negligence case against a landlord are: (a) a duty to protect the victim, (b) the attack was foreseeable, (c) breach of a duty to protect the victim, and (d) the breach was the proximate cause of the attack and the victim's injuries.

District of Columbia: One of the first cases to hold that a landlord has a duty to protect tenants was a 1970 District of Columbia case, Kline v. 1500 Massachusetts Avenue Apartment Corp., in which the court imposed a duty on residential landlords to take reasonable steps to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal acts by applying a warranty of habilitability to defects in security and by recognizing a "special relationship" between landlord and tenant.

Virginia: There are some cases in Virginia, such as Thompson v. Skate America (2001), in which the landlord was held liable for an assault. Nevertheless, for the most part Virginia has not favored these suits. A 2001 Virginia Supreme Court case, Yuzefovsky v. St. John's Wood Apartment, indicates that there are very limited circumstances in which liability will be imposed on a property owner, leasing broker or property manager for injuries to a tenant or invitee.

Facts of Yuzefovsky Case: Prior to signing the lease, Plaintiff had specifically inquired about the safety of the apartment building. The property manager stated that the development was "safe", that police officers lived in the development and that police vehicles patrolled the development. The tenant sued the landlord for being shot by a sawed-off shotgun in the common area of the development. After the shooting the tenant learned that in 1 year there were 656 crimes reported in the vicinity and within 3 years there were 257 crimes (including 5 robberies and 8 aggravated assaults) reported in the development. Thus, it was proven that the landlord's employee had misrepresented that the development was safe and crime-free, and that police lived in and patrolled the development.

Finding by the Court: While the Virginia Supreme Court concluded that the statements of the property manager were fraudulent, it found that the fraud was too remote from the criminal assault to give rise to liability. The Court stated that there might be a contract claim based upon fraudulent inducement, but not a claim for negligence.

When would Virginia impose liability? The Court enumerated some circumstances under which the landlord might be held liable for a criminal assault, including if the landlord knows that criminal assaults were occurring or were about to occur on the premises. With this knowledge there would be a heightened degree of foreseeable harm that would impose a duty on landlord to protect tenants and invitees.

The above article is not meant to replace legal counsel. To speak to one of our attorneys please contact Gross & Romanick directly at (703) 273-1400.