It’s no secret that victims of violent crime can file a lawsuit against an apartment property landlord or property manager for injuries suffered during a criminal assault while on their premises. The legal theory in the civil law is called premises liability. The demand for money damages can go into the millions for alleged physical and psychological injuries. In recent years, jury awards have been so lucrative that the American Trial Lawyers Association produces an annual training seminar in Phoenix that teaches premises liability causes of action to plaintiff lawyers on how to prevail against landlords and property managers.

The Litigation Nightmare

During a lawsuit, an apartment property is viewed under a judicial microscope, in a highly public forum. Your most confidential business records and personal financial records must be produced, if so ordered by the court. I know landlords who have literally turned their management offices upside-down looking for the requested documents. As if to add insult to injury, these records sometimes get passed around to other plaintiff lawyers during the course of subsequent lawsuits. Not surprisingly, several property management careers have ended due to previously undisclosed indiscretions that were uncovered during the intense scrutiny of the manager backgrounds. The process has a way of bringing out the worst flaws in property management because of the focus on the negative issues and imperfect decision making.

Defective Conditions

The largest jury awards usually involve stranger-to-stranger sexual assaults that occur inside of an apartment unit. The question of access into the unit is always the focal point at issue.

Victim studies tell us that most rapists gain access through unlocked doors and windows. When a lawsuit is filed, however, the allegation often is that the door or window locking hardware was defective and allowed the rapist access. As you can imagine, it would be difficult to defend against such a claim without having solid documentation of the actual condition of the door and door locks prior to the incident.

Positive Documentation

The best time to test and document the condition of door and window locks and latches is during the unit walk-through with the incoming and outgoing residents. The leasing consultant and the new resident should test each lock and latch and document that the devices work properly and are in good condition. It’s not enough to generally state that all locks and latches are "okay". A better plan is to list the location and condition of each device. For example, list the condition of the sliding glass door and the bedroom window latches separately.

By modifying your existing walk-through form, you can easily document the incoming and outgoing condition of the hardware with each resident. If you supply secondary sliding door and window blocking devices and anti-lift devices, their presence and condition should also be noted on the form.

The form should have a resident statement certifying that they have examined and tested each device and found them in good working order. You should also add a line where the resident agrees to use the locking devices at all times and will report any defects immediately.

This procedure, coupled with good key control and lock maintenance, will protect your residents better and drastically reduce your exposure from lawsuits in this area.

Premises Liability for Violent Crime