Are Landlords Liable For Crimes Against Their Tenants By Strangers?

by Keith OToole on February 9, 2013

If a Tenant is a victim of a crime, can he sue the Landlord in court?

The short answer is anyone can sue anyone.  However,  the real question is whether the tenant will have a good chance of winning.   We are not talking about crimes committed by the Landlord.  If the Landlord assaults his tenant, the tenant will call the police and file criminal charges.  The tenant may also start a civil lawsuit against the Landlord to recover damages.

Landlord Liability for Crimes by Strangers.

What about crimes committed by strangers, against tenants?   The Landlord’s answer would be no.  After all, he didn’t commit the crime.   Shouldn’t the tenant be going after the criminal?   However, the law in Rochester and throughout New York State takes a different view.   Landlords have a basic obligation to take minimal safety precautions to protect their tenants.

The Innkeeper’s Duty of Care and Singer Connie Francis.

Ever hear of singer Connie Francis?   In 1974, she was brutally raped in a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge on Long Island.    She then sued Howard Johnson’s and received a judgment for $2.5 million.   In describing the incident, an appellate court had this to say:

“…she was criminally assaulted by an unknown man who came through one of the sliding glass doors of her rooms. The doors gave the appearance of being locked, but the testimony showed they were capable of being unsecured from the outside without much difficulty…”

Howard Johnsons was not a Landlord, it was really an innkeeper.  Under the law, innkeepers have long had a special duty of care to their guests.   However, there are a number of court cases that impose a duty of care on Landlords for crimes against their tenants and the gap between innkeeper liability, and landlord liability, is not as wide as it used to be.

The Landlord’s Duty of Care.

It is not the Landlord’s job to guarantee the safety of their tenants.   However, the Landlord is obligated to take minimal safety precautions to discourage crime.   The courts care about “Foreseeable” crime and they expect Landlords to quickly address basic safety issues.   For example, if your tenant notifies you that the door lock is broken, you should fix it immediately.  If the property has a history of criminal activity, then investigate basic security upgrades.

What Should A Landlord Do?…..Three Steps:

Step One:   Talk To Your Attorney About an LLC.

If the Tenant is a victim of crime, particularly rape or assault, one should assume that the property owner will be sued.   A landlord can prepare for this risk by creating a Limited Liability Company (an “LLC”) and transfer ownership of the property to your new LLC.   “Limited Liability” means that should you lose in court, your liability is limited to the value of the LLC’s assets: your investment property.   This protects your personal assets from the Tenants and whatever judgment they may win in court.   An LLC is not the only way of shielding your personal assets,   but it is often the right way.

Step Two:  Talk To Your Insurance Agent About “Landlord’s Insurance”

Ever property that has tenants should have Landlord’s Insurance.   Unlike homeowners insurance, Landlord’s Insurance can protect you against the special risks created by Tenants.

Step Three:  Take Basic Security Precautions Today.

What is a “basic” security precaution is debatable.   In a good neighborhood, installing bars on the windows would be extreme.  In a bad neighborhood, maybe not.   However, there are some measures you can take to improve basic safety wherever your property is located:

  • Entry Doors:  Install Locks on Every Entry Door and re-key the locks when tenants vacate.
  • Windows:  Install Locks on Every Window.
  • Sliding Glass Doors: Every sliding glass door should have a good lock.
  • Lighting:  Install Basic exterior lighting.
  • Landscaping: Remove brush and trim shrubs where criminals can hide.
  • Common Areas:  Common Areas, like lobbies, should be well lit.  Lobby doors should be locked.
  • Fix It:  If you have security features that don’t work, fix them quick.
  • Check Local Law:   Some areas of the state have local laws which impose greater security obligations on Landlords.  For example, in New York City, landlords may have to install peepholes in doors, chain guards, elevator mirrors, self closing doors & self locking doors and intercoms.
  • Inspect:  You should periodically inspect your property to see if the security measures are working.
If you are a Landlord and have a legal question, don’t hesitate to call me at 585.352.7300.


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