At approximately 5:00 a.m. on a day in August, a few years back, a female tenant was assaulted in her Inglewood, Calif., apartment by an unknown assailant who was later caught and identified. The culprit had apparently entered through a window in the dining area of the apartment, after first removing a screen that was on the window. He was not a tenant at the apartment complex, and the plaintiff admitted that she did not know how he came to be there.

The tenant claimed the landlord was aware that violent crimes of various kinds had been committed at or near the building by criminals who had gained access to apartments by breaking into them, that he failed to take adequate precautions to secure her safety in her apartment, and that the failure constituted negligence and was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, which resulted from the attack.

It was brought out that the plaintiff had a locking wrought iron screen door in addition to a wooden apartment door and that, when she went to sleep on the night of the incident, both doors were closed and locked. It was noted, however, that when she went to sleep, she left all of the windows in her apartment open all the way, because it was hot and her apartment did not have air-conditioning.

The trial court determined that the cause of the woman’s injuries was simply the fact that she left her windows open, and thus there was no link between the landlord’s breach of duty regarding security and her injuries.

On appeal, the facts presented to the trial court were reviewed. The apartment manager had acknowledged that tenants sometimes leave the pedestrian gate “propped open at night” to permit access in and out of the complex for persons who do not live there…” It also was noted that the pedestrian gate and the car gate were frequently left unlocked or did not work. One side of the premises had a wall that was short enough to permit people to climb over it at any time.

In addition, the plaintiff asserted that the landlord failed to provide her with locks provided to other tenants – which would have permitted her to open her windows a safe amount so that cool air could enter her apartment but her attacker could not – and also did not provide security bars for her windows.

The court observed, citing a case involving a female student attending the University of Southern California, that, “When an injury can be prevented by a lock or a fence or a chain across a driveway or some other physical device, a landlord owner’s failure to erect an appropriate barrier can be the legal cause of injury inflicted by the negligent or criminal act of a third person.”

The appellate court thus reversed the trial court and ordered the matter to proceed to trial.

In another action revolving around a gate, this time involving a Granada Hills, Calif., backyard pool, a 2-year-old child drowned in the pool of the homeowners when his parent left him unattended for about five minutes. The parent sued the homeowners asserting they were responsible since there was apparently an absence of a self-latching closing mechanism on the gate at one of the entrances to the pool area.

The pool was accessible through two sliding glass doors leading from the living room to the patio and pool area. There also were doors on the left side and on the right side of the house.

While the boy was playing with his cousins, ages 9 and 7, the homeowner’s partner “received a call on his cordless phone and walked to the side yard of the house by the iron gate to take the call.”

The boy asked his mother for a glass of water. The mother went into the house for about five minutes to obtain the glass of water, leaving the front door of the house open. The mother knew that the homeowner’s partner was on the side yard and not watching the children. The mother had asked the boy’s cousins to keep an eye on their younger cousin so he would not go into the street.

In reciting the facts, the court noted that when the mother returned outside, she did not see her son, and the cousins did not know where he was. The homeowner’s partner was apparently still on the telephone, standing at and watching the side gate entrance.

The mother asked him where her son was, and he replied that he did not know. Both of them began to look for the son. Tragically, she went into the house and, through the glass door to the patio, she saw her son face down in the pool. Paramedics took the boy to the hospital emergency room, where he died later that evening.

With regard to the possible liability of the homeowner, the court concluded:

“Imposing a duty under the circumstances of this case also would unreasonably burden social and family relationships, requiring homeowners to provide babysitting services for their guests’ young children when the children’s parents also were on the premises. Imposition of such a duty on homeowners would make them insurers of their guests’ children’s safety even when the parents are also present on the premises, a burden that is beyond all reasonable expectations of both homeowners and their guests.”

The moral of the story? Whether the concern is for a tenant in your building, a child under your care, or customers and attendants at your coin laundry, take the appropriate steps necessary to prevent harm and tragic circumstances.

[This column is intended to provide general information only, not specific legal advice. If you have a specific question regarding the law, you should contact an attorney.]

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