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When Is a Landlord Liable for Criminal Activity at Their Property?

By Andrew Leonatti | Last updated on

When criminal activity happens at your apartment building or rental home, it's natural to wonder whether anything could have been done to prevent it from happening.

While your landlord probably doesn't live in the building and wasn't involved in the crime, it's still their responsibility. A recent lawsuit in the news tragically illustrates the need for landlords to take security at their properties seriously.

Family Killed After No Locks Changed

Ruth Esther Reyes de Severino and her 5- and 2-year-old children were murdered by her husband, who subsequently committed suicide, in February 2020 in Penns Grove, New Jersey.

Severino's family is now suing the apartment complex, its operator, and others involved with the management of the property for wrongful death, negligence, breach of contract, and negligent hiring.

The lawsuit accuses the property owners and managers of ignoring Severino's multiple requests to change the locks to her apartment. A month earlier, a court granted her request for a restraining order against her husband, who she accused of threatening to kill her.

The lawsuit said, in fact, that Severino "begged" management to change the locks at least five times. Her husband used his keys to enter the apartment and commit the murders.

Landlords Have a Duty To Provide a Safe Environment

When you sue for negligence, you are telling the court that the defendant had a duty to protect you and failed to live up to it, and that failure led to injuries.

But the law doesn't create a lot of duties between unrelated individuals.

You don't have a duty to the random stranger on the street, although it would be nice if you warned them about the ice on the sidewalk. But you do have a duty to some people you have a clearly defined relationship to.

There's a duty between parents and children, between doctors and patients, and between landlords and tenants. It's that last duty that could leave your landlord liable if your apartment building becomes a crime scene.

Landlords have some degree of duty when it comes to protecting tenants. That includes making sure all buildings meet or exceed local laws regarding safety. In fact, the Severino family's lawsuit alleges the management company also ignored a local law passed in response to a 2019 fatal shooting at the same complex.

What Should Landlords Do?

If your landlord notices that the property is unsafe, either because a crime occurs or a tenant notifies them of a problem, they need to make proper changes. This can include:

  • Putting bars on a street-level window
  • Installing a motion-sensor light near the stairs or front door
  • Making sure locks and other security features are working
  • Maintaining windows and other openings

What Should You Do?

If you or a visitor are hurt as a result of a crime, and the landlord failed to meet this limited duty to protect tenants, then a lawsuit might be appropriate.

That doesn't mean you can sue your landlord because your apartment lacked a state-of-the-art alarm system. Security at the building should be reasonable, but not necessarily perfect.

When a crime does occur or you feel unsafe, though, it's important to call your landlord so they are aware of the problem. It's possible that will be enough to encourage necessary changes to promote safety.

If your landlord isn't willing to improve building safety, you can consider talking to a lawyer about your options. Save any communications with your landlord to document your efforts to address the problem. A lawyer may help you discover that you may have cause to break your lease and move into a safer environment without a financial penalty.

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