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Are Landlords Liable for Criminal Activity?

It is every landlord’s responsibility to maintain and ensure the safety of the properties they rent out. When it comes to criminal activity that results in harm to a tenant, are landlords liable as well? What security measures are landlords required to take in order to prevent criminal activity within their property?

Reasonable foreseeability

Landlords have the duty to prevent possible criminal activity if there’s reasonable foreseeability that one might be committed. Broadly speaking, reasonable foreseeability can mean that there’s enough reason to believe a crime may be committed due to certain factors, such as:

  • Previous occurrences of crime in the property because of inadequate security
  • Lack of security measures, including proper lighting, locks and others
  • Non-compliance with housing and building safety codes

“Reasonable foreseeability,” however, is established only on a case-by-case basis. In a court case, all the facts will be reviewed to determine if, indeed, a landlord’s neglect or lack of security measures resulted in or contributed to the commission of a crime within the property.

How is reasonable foreseeability interpreted?

A California Supreme Court decision helps to illustrate the application of reasonable foreseeability. In Castaneda v. Olsher (2007), a tenant was injured when he was accidentally shot in a gunfire involving another tenant, who was earlier reported to the landlord as verbally harassing a third tenant. The landlord, who suspected that the reported tenant was engaged in criminal activity, did not take action on these reports.

The injured tenant filed a case against the landlord to seek compensation for their injury, claiming that the landlord’s failure to evict the reported tenant put other tenants at risk.

The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the landlord, stating that the errant tenant’s behavior and suspected criminal involvement were not enough to create reasonable foreseeability, or to cause the landlord to foresee that the tenant would engage in violent behavior. The court concluded that the landlord had no compelling reason to evict the tenant.

Moreover, the court ruled that the monetary loss from losing the tenancy was greater than the foreseeability of the commission of a crime, and thus, the landlord was acting within legal bounds in not evicting the tenant.

Probability of harm vs. burden of duty

The courts state that reasonable foreseeability requires balancing the probability of harm to others and the “burden of duty” on the part of the landlord.

Landlords are required to observe “ordinary care” in providing security and safety to their tenants. They are bound to implement security measures that are out of the ordinary only when the probability of harm is greater than the burden of duty.

If, for instance, there are no previous cases of crime in a building, the landlord cannot be compelled to install security devices at significant costs. On the other hand, if the cost of installing or taking a safety measure is less than the reasonable foreseeability that a crime could be committed, the landlord is required to adopt that measure.

For example, a landlord knows that the building’s front door lock is broken but fails to fix or replace it immediately. If an intruder enters the building through the front door and robs a tenant, the landlord could be held liable for neglect. In this instance, the cost of fixing the broken lock is less than the foreseeability that a criminal could enter the property because of it.

In general, landlords are encouraged to adopt safety measures if the cost for doing so is reasonable. If a tenant shows recurring criminal or threatening behavior, the landlord will do well to implement security measures or evict the tenant.

Screening tenants for criminal activity

Screening tenants based on their criminal records may be construed as discriminatory. It may only be done with sufficient justification and must be applied equally to all applicants. Landlords are not required to screen potential tenants for criminal activity, but they may look into an applicant’s criminal records and review these against the property’s safety conditions to establish potential risk to other tenants.