By Jonathan R. Mehl, Esq.
The question at times arises as to when a Landlord’s faces a responsibility for the criminal acts of third parties. This issue was again ruled on by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey in the tragic circumstances in the case of Pitts v. Gianini v. Brady, decided on December 4, 2019.
A five year old girl and her mother were murdered in a four family house owned by Gianini. Brady was the ex-boyfriend of the mother. There were two entrances to the main lobby from which there was access to the two units on the first floor, and to the stairway for the two units on the second floor. The decedents lived on the first floor. The lawsuit was brought by Pitts, who was the administrator of the estate.
When Pitts was unable to reach the decedent, she went to the property. The front door was unlocked as was the window to the apartment. Plaintiff brought the lawsuit alleging that Gianini negligently operated and maintained the property.
The Appellate Division began its analysis recognizing the elements of any negligence claim: duty of care, breach of duty, injury proximately related to the breach of duty, and resulting damages. These standards apply in any negligence case.
Even in a landlord – tenant relationship setting, Courts have held that “Negligence is tested by whether the reasonably prudent person at the time and place should recognize and foresee an unreasonable risk or likelihood of harm or danger to others.” (quoting Trentacost v. Brussel, 82 N.J., 214, 222 (1980).
There is a “modern view” held by the courts that “landlords have a duty to protect patrons and tenants from foreseeable criminal acts of third parties occurring on their premises.” Clohesy v. Food Circus Supermarkets, 149 N.J. 496, 504 (1997). Hence, “[a] landlord has a duty to exercise reasonable care to guard against foreseeable dangers arising from use of those portions of the rental property over which the landlord retains control.” J.H. v. R&M Tagliareni, LLC, 239 N.J. 198, 218 (2019).
This begs the question as to what is foreseeable? The answer is that foreseeability “refers to… `the risk reasonably within the range of apprehension, of injury to another person, that is taken into account in determining the existence of the duty to exercise care.’ Clohesy, 149 N.J. at 502-03. The court will also consider fairness and public policy, and assess the totality of the circumstances. Thus, if for example there were prior criminal activities in the area, this can be considered.
When going through the history of the law, the Appellate Division referred to a prior case where the landlord did not provide adequate locks and there was a robbery a week after a tenant’s complaint, and there was a history of frequent break-ins in the area. Braitman v. Overlook Terrace Corp., 68 N.J. 368 (1975).
Ultimately, the Court in Pitts found that the “plaintiff was not required to present evidence that the same or similar offenses had been committed on the property or in close proximity to the building where” the murders occurred. It was sufficient to bring the case to trial for the Plaintiff to have shown that the entrance door lock was broken, and that the tenant had complaint to the landlord about it. Thus, “it was reasonably foreseeable that an intruder could enter defendants’ building through the unlocked front door and, once in the entrance hallway, force his or her way into an apartment.”
Because the landlord knew of the broken lock, and had the ability to repair it, this played into the totality of circumstances analysis. Also, as a matter of public policy the Court ruled that landlords must comply with regulations pertaining to repairs. Accordingly, a ruling was made that the landlord owed a duty of care to the tenant.
The bottom line is that if there are safety issues in your building, these should be promptly and properly addressed. As it pertains to criminal acts of third parties, a court may very well determine that if the property is located in a high crime area, that there is a greater foreseeability of criminal acts by third parties that could affect tenants. Therefore, if you as a landlord are aware of any safety issues, or other issues that could result in injury to a tenant or others visiting your property, you are best to promptly attend to the items.
Jonathan R. Mehl, Esq. is recognized in the community as an ethical and highly skilled attorney, who is dedicated in effectively getting to the bottom line in achieving the client’s goals. Jonathan R. Mehl graduated Seton Hall University School of Law, Newark, New Jersey, in 1991. He earned his undergraduate degree from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., in 1987. Jonathan R. Mehl is admitted to practice law in New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia. He has served on a New Jersey District Legal Ethics Committee, and the New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Committee for the Special Civil Part.Since 1996 Jonathan R. Mehl, P.C. has maintained the law firm in Rutherford, New Jersey. He can be reached at (201) 804-0040 or via email at Jonathan@mehllegal.com