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Walls v. Oxford Management Co

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff Walls was sexually assaulted on premises of an apartment complex managed by Defendant.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Absent exceptional circumstances, a landlord does not have a duty to protect tenants from criminal attacks by third persons. The implied warranty of habitability does not apply to impose any additional duties on landlords in the circumstance of criminal attacks on tenants by third persons.

    Facts. On December 5, 1988, Plaintiff Deanna Walls was sexually assaulted in her vehicle parked on the premises of Bay Ridge Apartment Complex. The Defendants in this case are the owners of the apartment complex and the management of the complex. During the two years prior to the assault on Plaintiff there were eleven auto thefts, three attempted auto thefts, and thirty-one incidents of criminal mischief/ theft. No sexual assaults were reported. Plaintiff brought an action in federal court alleging that Defendants had a duty to hire competent management, provide reasonable security, a duty to warn residents of lack of security, and a duty to warn residents of the numerous criminal activities which had occurred. The Plaintiff alleges that Defendants breached the duties listed and that such breach was the proximate cause of her injuries.

    Issue. There are two issues:
    Does the landlord have a duty to secure tenants against criminal attack?
    Is the implied warranty of habitability breached by criminal acts of third persons?

    Held. No to a. and No to b. Remanded.
    Landlords owe a general duty of reasonable care to their tenants, but the common law does not impose a duty on private citizens to protect others from criminal attacks by third parties. Thus, the Court will not place such a duty on landlords, unless the conduct of the parties merits a finding that one of the exceptions to the general rule is implicated.
    The exceptions of the general rule against holding private citizens liable from attacks by third parties fall into four categories: 1. When a special relationship, such as innkeeper-guest or carrier-passenger, exists. This type of relationship is not present in a landlord-tenant relationship. 2. When a condition brought about by the defendant is a special temptation to foreseeable criminal conduct. This is how most cases holding landlords liable are decided. 3. When there is an overriding foreseeability of criminal attack. This is not adopted here. 4. Under the general tort principle that one who assumes a duty thereafter must act with reasonable care.
    The Court held that while landlords have no general duty to protect tenants from criminal attack, such a duty may arise when the landlord has created or is responsible for a known defective condition on the premises which creates a foreseeable risk of criminal conduct. A landlord who undertakes, gratuitously or under contract, to provide security for an apartment complex must act thereafter with reasonable care. Unless the conduct of the landlord fits into one of those exceptions, the landlord will not be held liable for criminal attack on residents by third persons.
    The implied warranty of habitability in residential lease agreements protects tenants against structural defects, but does not require landlords to take affirmative measures to provide security against criminal attack. This does not limit a recovery should the landlord violate an express covenant in the lease or through an attack through a violation of the housing code.

    Discussion. This case might have been decided differently in other jurisdictions. If these facts ever present themselves, be aware of the law in the jurisdiction which applies.


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