The Supreme Court of Florida recently issued an opinion reversing a Fourth District Court of Appeal decision we cited in a previous post. The decision, Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, examines when a defendant is entitled to a directed verdict in negligent security action.
The events leading to the Sanders case started in late 2004 when two young adults moved into an apartment complex that was marketed as a gated community. A year after they moved into the complex, the two were shot to death inside their apartment by unknown assailants. There were no signs of forced entry, but possessions including an engagement ring, cash, and credit cards had been taken. Evidence adduced during discovery showed that in the three years prior to the murders there had been two prior “violent” incidents at the gated community when the gate had been broken and criminals followed residents onto the property. During the year of these murders, the gate had been inoperable for a total of four months. One incident resulted in an armed robbery, the other in an assault. Though a governing manual provides that notice be given to residents when such acts occur, no notice was provided after these incidents.
Representatives for the decedents brought a wrongful death action against the landlord, arguing that management’s negligence in maintaining the front gate, providing adequate security, preventing dangerous persons from gaining access to the premises and protecting and warning guests of dangerous conditions was a proximate cause of the deaths. During discovery, a boyfriend of one of the decedents testified he had been speaking to his girlfriend at 11 PM on the night of the murder and that the conversation ended when two identified people known to the decedent were at the door. The trial court eventually ruled that this statement was inadmissible hearsay. A criminologist also testified at trial, and asserted that most of the criminal activity at the community was opportunistic in nature. An expert enlisted by the defendant argued that the prior crimes were not of the nature that would naturally suggest the occurrence of these murders. A jury eventually found in favor of the plaintiffs, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed, holding that by failing to proffer evidence of how the assailants gained access to the apartment, the plaintiff simply could not show causation between security and the murder. ERP, 96 So. 3d at 933. The Supreme Court of Florida, however, granted review.
In reversing the Fourth District’s opinion, the Supreme Court of Florida started by noting the cavalcade of different criminal incidents that had occurred on the property in the three years prior to the murders. These incidents included the two mentioned above as well as another strong-armed robbery, a domestic violence forced entry, nine car thefts, an attempted car theft, and six burglaries. Next, the court noted the testimonial evidence proffered by the defendant’s expert, which ultimately suggested that the gate may have not been serving it purposes given the frequency of criminal incidents, which the court concluded wasn’t purely speculative. The Supreme Court found that this evidence collectively was enough to raise a fair inference that the landlord’s breach may have contributed to what happened inside the apartment. The court noted that even had the decedents opened the door, this would be properly considered in assigning contributory negligence but not undercutting a reasonable inference that the landlord’s act or omissions contributed to the incident. Since there was sufficient inference from which a reasonable jury could find that the landlord was at least possibly at fault, the court concluded it was error for the Fourth District Court of Appeal to hold that the motion for directed verdict should have been granted. Rather, there was a question of fact, which the jury should ultimately decide.
In recent years, the law surrounding negligent security has narrowed in many respects, but the Supreme Court’s holding reaffirms that negligent security can be argued successfully and that certain claims can get to a jury. A jury may ultimately decide in the defendant’s favor, but there is some satisfaction knowing that a group of peers made the call. Although your possible negligence case may not reach the Supreme Court of Florida, it is still useful to enlist experienced counsel to not only ensure you are ready should the situation arise but also to present the strongest possible case, so appellate resolution may not be necessary at all. The South Florida premises liability attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky are well-versed in Florida negligent security law and can provide the zealous representation your potential case may required. If you’ve been recently harmed as a result of possible negligence on the part of a landlord and are interested in discovering what legal options you may have, feel free to contact us for a complimentary case consultation.