Landlords’ Duty To Prevent Crime

Landlords have a duty to take reasonable measures to protect their tenants from foreseeable crime on their properties.

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.

In order to be held liable for a tenant’s injuries, the tenant must show that the landlord knew or should have known about the probability of criminal activity and failed to take reasonable steps to protect the tenant. Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center, 6 Cal. 4th 666 (1993). To determine what steps are reasonable to protect a tenant against foreseeable crime, the court will balance the probability of harm to the tenant with the burden of the duty imposed on the landlord to prevent or mitigate the risk of harm. Vasquez v. Residential Investments, Inc., 118 Cal. App. 4th 269, 280 (2004).  

California landlords must properly secure all common areas of the rental property.

California courts have long established that a landlord “owes a duty of care to its tenants to take reasonable steps to secure the common areas under its control.” Ann M., 6 Cal. 4th at 675. Landlords should conduct reasonable periodic inspections of their properties to discover and remedy any unsafe conditions. CACI NO. 1006.

Properly secured doors that prohibit non-tenant strangers from entering a rental property are essential to keeping tenants safe. California law requires landlords to equip doors that provide an ingress and egress to the common areas with “locking mechanisms that comply with applicable fire and safety codes.” CAL. CIV. CODE § 1941.3. Common areas of multi-family dwelling units include the lobby of a building, stairways, elevators, hallways, shared laundry rooms, shared backyard, and on-site parking areas. Ascertaining what additional reasonable security measures a landlord should take to prevent crime in the common areas of a rental property beyond a locked entry/exit door will depend on the neighborhood it is located and what types of crime are likely to occur. Security measures could include extra lighting, motion sensitive lighting, locked outside security gates at the entrance and exit to the property, and video surveillance and cameras.

It is not enough to show that a neighborhood has a high incidence of crime in order to impose a duty on the landlord to take steps to eliminate or mitigate harm to their tenants. Ann M., 6 Cal. 4th at 678. Instead, the tenant must show there were prior similar criminal acts on the property that put the landlord on notice of a need for security measures. Id. at 679.

A tenant does not need to show that the prior similar acts are identical to the crime in question. For example, when an assailant entered plaintiff’s apartment building lobby through an entry door with a broken lock and sexually assaulted plaintiff, the court held that because there were previous physical assaults and robberies in the same location it was foreseeable that a sexual assault could also occur, and the landlord had a duty to fix the lock on the door that the criminal entered through. Kwaitkowski v. Superior Trading Co., 123 Cal.App.3d 324, 333 (1981).

California law requires landlords to secure tenants’ units with deadbolts and window locks.

For tenancies after July 1, 1998, landlords are required to install and maintain a deadbolt lock on all swinging entry doors to the tenant’s unit, and they are required to install a locking device on all windows that open. CAL. CIV. CODE § 1941.3. Existing locks in rental units that require repair or replacement after July 1, 1998, must also comply with certain lock specifications defined in the code. Id.

Tenants are responsible for notifying their landlord if a door or window lock is inoperable. The landlord is not liable for violating the code unless they have actual notice and fail to repair within a reasonable time after the notice. Id.

California Landlords are not required to screen a prospective tenant’s criminal record.

A crime against a tenant may be committed by a person coming onto the property or by another tenant residing in the same building. Although most landlords screen a prospective tenant’s criminal record, they are not required to do so in California. Also, California law prohibits any consumer report from including arrests, indictments, or misdemeanors that did not result in a conviction, or crimes that are older than seven years. A screening of a potential tenant’s criminal history may not provide the landlord with all the information needed to determine the person is a risk to others.

Landlords cannot refuse to rent to a prospective tenant or evict a tenant because they merely suspect that tenant is involved in criminal activity. Castaneda v. Olsher, 41 Cal. 4th 1205, 1214 (2007). A landlord must know that a prospective tenant or existing tenant is a danger to others to find that the landlord has a duty to take protective measures. A landlord who is aware that a tenant poses a foreseeable threat to another tenant and takes no steps to prevent harm—such as not renting to the prospective tenant, evicting the troublesome tenant, or warning the vulnerable tenant—will be found negligent and liable for the tenant’s actions. Madhani v. Cooper, 106 Cal. App. 4th 412 (2005); O’Hara v. Western Seven Trees, 75 Cal. App. 3d 798 (1977).

Landlords may also be liable for criminal acts by a tenant’s guest.

Landlords can be found liable for the actions of a tenant’s guest. Valencia v. Michaud, 81 Cal. App. 4th 190 (2000). In Valencia, the court found a landlord was liable for the stabbing of a tenant’s young child by a troublesome, unauthorized guest of another tenant, whom the landlord knew about but did not take any steps to prohibit from the premises. Id.

Landlords may be held accountable for drug activity on their property.

A landlord cannot refuse to rent to a prospective tenant because they have a history of drug use. The Fair Housing Act (FEHA) bans discrimination based on disability, which has been extended to addiction to drugs and alcohol. 24 CFR 100.201(a)(2). Drug addiction is a disability under federal law, and refusing to rent to someone with a disability is illegal. 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619.

While addiction itself is protected as a disability, illegal drug activity is not. Current use of a controlled substance, drug manufacturing, and drug dealing are not protected under the FEHA. A landlord must evict a disruptive or troublesome tenant that violates lease terms or violates local, state, or federal law. Failing to do so can make the landlord liable for any injuries resulting to tenants from actions by illegal drug users, dealers, and manufacturers on their property.

Landlords are required to take steps to protect a tenant that has a police report or a restraining order against another person.

Landlords also have a duty to protect tenants from both non-tenants and other tenants where the vulnerable tenant has obtained a restraining order or has a copy of a police report stating that they are the victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. CAL. CIV. CODE §§ 1941.5 – 1941.6. Once the tenant notifies the landlord in writing of the police report or restraining order, the landlord is required to change the locks on the doors to the tenant’s unit within twenty-four hours. Id. The tenant may elect to change the lock themselves but must notify the landlord that they have done so within twenty-four hours and provide the landlord a key. Id.

Landlords have no duty to prevent criminal activity that takes place off of the rental property.

Landlords are only responsible for the crimes that are on the premises itself and in areas that are under their control. Public streets, even if right outside the tenant’s apartment building, and adjacent areas to the rental property are not within the landlord’s control. Medina v. Hillshore Partners, 40 Cal. App. 4th 480 (1995); Debra S. Rosenbaum v. Security Bank Corporation, 43 Cal. App. 4th 1086 (1996).

Damages

When a landlord has breached their duty to prevent foreseeable third-party crime, a tenant may recover for their bodily injuries, emotional harm, and any property damage. Where there was extreme negligence, a tenant may be able to recover punitive damages as well.

Tenants who have been forced from a rent-controlled unit because of crime may recover the loss of the value of the unit. For example, if a tenant is $1000 below market rate when the tenant is forced to vacate and would have stayed in the unit for another ten years, the tenant is entitled to ten years of rent-differential damages, or $120,000. In some circumstances, this amount may be tripled.

If you are a California tenant who is a victim of crime, call Tobener Ravenscroft LLC to speak with an experienced tenant attorney about your potential claims.

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