A landlord who fails to take certain safety precautions, such as fixing locks in an apartment unit, may be held liable for a resulting criminal act against a tenant. The New Jersey Appellate Court held in a recent case that a landlord had a duty to protect tenants from third parties through reasonable means, and that intrusion into a tenant’s unit and resulting physical harm––including murder––is within the scope of that duty.
In that case, the plaintiff, Rosena Pitts, was a mother who sued for the wrongful death of her daughter, Tam Marie Gaddy, and Tam Marie’s five-year-old daughter (Rosena’s granddaughter), Natasia Gaddy. Tam Marie and Natasia lived on a ground-floor unit of a four-unit apartment building. The landlords of that building, Lewis and Barbara Gianini, were the defendants in the case. Rosena alleged that they negligently maintained the property and failed to keep Tam Marie and Natasia safe.
On January 29, 2013, Tam Marie’s body was discovered stabbed to death in the bedroom of her apartment. Natasia’s body was found suffocated in the basement of the apartment. There was evidence that Tam Marie’s bedroom window could be forced open from the outside, and also that the lock on her front door was broken. The doors to the building’s lobby were always unlocked. There was also evidence that she had complained to her landlord, about these problems and he had promised to take care of them. In addition, Rosena also presented evidence that the front door of Tam Marie’s apartment did not have a chain-link guard on it and that the landlords did not comply with New Jersey housing regulations. The landlords presented evidence of eleven criminal incidents in the area within the last few years, but since none of which included burglaries or murders, argued they owed no such duty.
Reversing the trial judge’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the landlords, the Appellate Court reasoned that the landlords owed Tam Marie and Natasia “a duty of care to protect them from foreseeable criminal acts by third parties on the property.” Although the traditional understanding of landlord liability had been that landlords do not owe tenants a duty of protection from third parties, several New Jersey cases have adopted the more modern view that landlords do have a duty to protect tenants when harm from third parties is foreseeable. Notably, New Jersey does not require a plaintiff to show that similar harm occurred on or near the premises, but just that the “totality of the circumstances” would lead a reasonable person to recognize that such harm is foreseeable. Therefore, the existence of past instances of similar harm would certainly help establish foreseeability but is not necessary. For example, in a prior case, a customer was abducted from a supermarket parking lot and later killed. Although there was no evidence of such extreme harm happening in that parking lot prior, the plaintiff still provided evidence that numerous criminal acts had been committed in that area and thus the court held that an abduction was reasonably foreseeable.
Here, the Court looked at the eleven criminal incidents that had taken place in proximity to Tam Marie’s apartment over the past few years before her murder, along with the landlord’s knowledge of the broken door and window locks, and held that it was reasonably foreseeable that a person may enter into Tam Marie’s apartment and harm, even murder, her. Even though no previous burglaries or murders had been reported in the area, the evidence showed that the area was not crime-free, and this was enough for the plaintiff to meet her burden.
If you are a landlord or are a tenant with concerns over the safety of a rental unit, feel free to contact Ward, Shindle & Hall.