This article addresses whether a landlord can be held liable for damages resulting from criminal activity at the rental unit. The answer is “maybe”, depending on whether the plaintiff can establish that the criminal conduct was foreseeable. In this context, foreseeability generally requires the prior occurrence of similar criminal acts occurring at the premises, and the landlord’s knowledge of the previous criminal activity. Without such a showing or other exceptional circumstances, the tenant is unable to establish the duty element of his or her negligence claim and the landlord will typically win. Conversely, a duty to prevent harm would exist If the landlord had knowledge of similar prior criminal activity, subjecting him to liability for all resulting damages.
Scope of Landlord’s Duty to Prevent Foreseeable Harm
Landlords have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect tenants from the foreseeable criminal acts of another. Cal.Civ.Code § 1714. Criminal acts can include conduct such as assault, battery, robbery, murder, rape, drug abuse, and property damage. When a landlord fails to use reasonable care to protect their tenants, they can be held liable for the negligent or intentional criminal conduct of a third party. CACI NO. 1005; Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center, 6 Cal. 4th 666 (1993).
The Ann M case is the leading published decision addressing this issue. In Ann M, the plaintiff was sexually assaulted during the course of employment at a photo store that rented space in a shopping plaza. Plaintiff contended the plaza owed a duty to tenants and their employees to maintain the common areas and leased premises in a reasonably safe condition, including the duty to hire security guards to maintain the common areas of the shopping center. The California Supreme Court disagreed, holding that Pacific Plaza did not act unreasonably in failing to provide security guards. The court concluded that a “high degree of foreseeability” is required to find that the scope of a landlord’s duty of care includes the hiring of security guards. The Court opined further that the requisite degree of foreseeability “rarely, if ever, can be proven in the absence of prior similar incidents of violent crime on the landowner’s premises.” The Court reasoned that to hold otherwise would be to “impose an unfair burden upon landlords and, in effect, would force landlords to become the insurers of public safety, contrary to well-established policy in this state. [Citations].” Thus, in California landlords generally will not be held liable for damages resulting from criminal activities without evidence that similar instances of criminal activity previously occurred at the premises.
California Statutes Imposing Burden on Landlords to Prevent Harm
The state’s Civil Code requires a landlord to install an operable deadbolt lock on every main swinging entry door of a dwelling unit. A landlord must also install and maintain window security or locking devices for windows designed to be opened. Locks must also be installed on exterior doors that provide ingress and egress to a common area, like a pool.
California statutes also impose a duty on a landlord to provide protections to a tenant who has filed a police report or obtained a restraining order against another person for domestic violence. sexual assault or stalking. After the tenant notifies the landlord in writing about the police report or restraining order, the landlord must change the locks on the doors to the tenant’s unit within 24 hours. (See California Civil Code Sections 1941.5 and 1941.6.)
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