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Kline v. 1500 Massachusetts Avenue Apartment Corp

    Brief Fact Summary. Sarah B. Kline (Plaintiff) was attacked in the common hallway of Massachusetts Avenue Apartment Corp.’s (Defendant’s) apartment building. Plaintiff brought suit against Defendant to recover the personal injuries she sustained.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A landlord has a duty to take steps to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal acts committed by third parties

    Facts. Plaintiff leased an apartment from Defendant. At the time Plaintiff first signed the lease, a doorman was on duty twenty-four hours a day and there was an employee behind the main desk at all times. Approximately seven years later, Defendant had discontinued posting a doorman, security gates were left open, and an employee was not always behind the main desk. One evening, Plaintiff was criminally assaulted and robbed outside of her apartment in the common hallway, which was under the exclusive control of Defendant. Two weeks prior, another female tenant had been similarly attack in the same hallway. Plaintiff brought suit against Defendant. The district court dismissed the complaint and Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. Should a duty be placed on a landlord to take steps to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal acts committed by third parties?

    Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
    * On the premises of the apartment building in question, there had been an increase in violence, robbery, and assault crimes. The crime against Plaintiff took place in the common hallway, which is under the exclusive control of the Defendant. Certain duties have been assigned to the landlord because of his control of common hallways. The duties are the landlord’s because by his control of the areas of common use, he is the only party who had the power to make the necessary repairs or to provide the necessary protection.
    * The general rule, which Defendant relies upon, is that a private person does not have a duty to protect another from a criminal attack by a third person. But this rule falters when it is applied to the conditions of modern day apartment living. The landlord is not an insurer of the tenant’s safety, but he is not a bystander either. In this case, the landlord was on notice of the possibility of a criminal attack upon Plaintiff. Just two weeks prior to the assault on Plaintiff, another female tenant had been attacked in the same hallway. The court places the duty of taking protective measures, guarding the entire premises, and the areas peculiarly under the landlord’s control against the perpetration of criminal acts upon the landlord.
    * As between a tenant and landlord, the landlord is the only one in the position to take the necessary acts of protection required. The landlord is in the best position to take the necessary protective measures. Police cannot patrol the entryways and the hallways.
    * The standard of care, which should be applied in judging if the landlord has fulfilled his duty of protection, is reasonable care in all circumstances. Therefore, the applicable standard of care is that standard which Defendant had employed at the time Plaintiff began her tenancy in 1959. In 1966 the record is clear that Defendant had breached that standard of care. Defendant should have used the same standard of care in 1966 as it employed in 1959.
    * The Landlord is not an insurer. Landlord is not expected to provide protection owed by a police department. Landlord is entirely justified in passing the cost of protection to the tenant in the form of increased rent.

    Dissent. (Justice MacKinnon) Plaintiff has not proved that the alleged negligence was the proximate cause of the assault or that it contributed to it in any way. It could have been a tenant or a guest visiting the property who attacked Plaintiff. Also, Plaintiff was not led to believe that she would get the same standard of protection in 1966 that was furnished in 1959. Her original lease had terminated and she was on a month-to-month basis. Thus, whatever contract existed was created at the beginning of the month. If tenants expect increased protection, they can move to apartments where it is available and presumably pay higher rent.

    Discussion. Here, the court discusses the general rule that a private person does not have a duty to protect another from a criminal attack by a third person. However, as this case shows, that rule has exceptions for persons who share a special relationship. A landlord does owe a duty to a tenant to provide protection against the intentional criminal acts of third person. A large part of the court’s reasoning is that the landlord is in the best position to provide protection. If there were no duty imposed upon the landlord, a large apartment complex such as Plaintiff’s would go unprotected. In this case, the special relationship between the Plaintiff and Defendant justifies the abandonment of the general rule outlined above and the imposition of the duty of protection against Defendant.



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