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Trentacost v. Brussel

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff was assaulted and robbed in the stairway of her apartment building and suffered serious injuries as a result. Plaintiff sued Defendant for failing to take reasonable care in securing the areas of the building that were within his control. The jury found for the Plaintiff, who requested a retrial for modified damages. The trial court granted the motion, and the second jury returned a verdict with increased damages. Defendant appealed the verdict, the Appellate Division affirmed, and Defendant instituted the present appeal.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A landlord may be liable for a tenant’s injuries caused by a third party’s criminal conduct if the landlord failed to provide adequate security for the common areas of the building.

    Facts.

    Trentacost (Plaintiff) was assaulted and robbed in the stairway of her apartment building and suffered serious injuries as a result. The building had a front and rear entrance. The rear was padlocked; the front had no lock. The subject property was in a neighborhood that experienced a high crime rate. Plaintiff herself reported to her landlord Brussel (Defendant) that someone had attempted to break into the building cellar and that there were several instances of strangers in the hallways. Plaintiff sued Defendant for failing to take reasonable care in securing the areas of the building that were within his control, i.e., the common areas. The jury found in favor of Plaintiff, who requested a retrial for modified damages. The trial court granted the motion, and the second jury returned a verdict with increased damages. Defendant appealed the verdict, the Appellate Division affirmed, and Defendant instituted the present appeal.

    Issue.

    Whether a landlord may be liable for a tenant’s injuries caused by a third party’s criminal conduct if the landlord failed to provide adequate security for the common areas of the building.

    Held.

    Yes. The court of appeals’ ruling is affirmed. A landlord may be liable for a tenant’s injuries caused by a third party’s criminal conduct if the landlord failed to provide adequate security for the common areas of the building.

     

    Concurrence.

    (Clifford, J.):The majority’s application of the implied warranty of habitability to this case is ill-advised. It practically imposes absolute liability based on the relationship of the parties and vague notions of foreseeability. Traditional negligence principles are perfectly adequate for answering this question.

     

    Discussion:The injured tenant may recover for negligence or for breach of the implied warranty of habitability. Under a general negligence theory, a landlord has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable danger that could result from another’s criminal conduct. Here, the crime to which Plaintiff was a victim was foreseeable because the subject property was in a neighborhood that experienced a high crime rate. Moreover, Plaintiff herself reported to Defendant that someone had attempted to break in to the building cellar and that there were several instances of strangers in the hallways. In light of this evidence, failure to secure the front entrance with a lock could easily be an unreasonable and callous disregard for the tenants’ safety, and it makes criminal activity even more foreseeable. Plaintiff may also recover for her injuries based on a breached warranty of habitability. This court holds that this warranty obliges landlords to establish reasonable safeguards to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal activity on the premises. This obligation is independent of any knowledge of any risk. Failure to provide adequate security impaired the habitability of Plaintiff’s apartment. This was a breach of the warranty of habitability, and Defendant is liable for the injuries which arose from that breach.


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