Many negligent security cases involve a property owner’s liability for failing to adequately secure property from foreseeable third-party criminal activity that causes harm to a resident or other visitor. However, the Sun Sentinel recently reported on the 1.5 million-dollar settlement of a case that presented a more novel theory of negligence in the area of apartment security, which involved the failure of a property management company to adequately screen residents, one of whom eventually murdered another.
This case arose from the tragic shooting of a former Marine in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Plantation, Florida on July 17, 2012. The former Marine was a resident of the apartment complex, and the murderer, as noted above, also resided at the complex. Witnesses at the time of the murder said they were unaware of any preexisting grievance between the two residents. However, the murderer had been a resident at a different apartment complex in Plantation, managed by the same property management company that managed the apartment complex where the murder occurred. The murderer had been evicted from the first property for causing disturbances and making death threats against other tenants. Information regarding the murderer’s eviction was part of a background investigation performed by the management company, but this background check was never reviewed before the decision to permit the murderer to rent an apartment was made. Following the murder, the Marine’s widow brought a wrongful death suit against the property management company, arguing that the management company failed to exercise reasonable care in its evaluation of prospective tenants and that this breach of reasonable care led to the death of her husband.
Two common issues arise in cases predicated on negligent security: whether the third party’s criminal activity was sufficiently foreseeable such that the defendant’s duty of reasonable care would encompass protecting the plaintiff from the third party’s criminal act, see, e.g., Vazquez v. Lago Grande Homeowners Ass’n, 900 So.2d 587, 592-93 (Fla. 3d DCA Dec. 8, 2004) (reviewing cases and noting that in the absence of a defendant’s affirmative undertaking to provide security, that “prior offenses, giving rise to the [foreseeability] of future ones, may be deemed indispensable to recovery,” since foreseeability is vital for finding a duty to provide reasonable care existed under the circumstances), and whether the alleged failure to provide security was the legal cause of the harm incurred, see, e.g., ERP Operating Ltd. Partnership v. Sanders (PDF-embedded link), 96 So.3d 929, 933 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012) (reversing the trial court’s denial of a directed verdict motion in favor of the defendant when the evidence did not show forced entry and otherwise failed to show how assailants who murdered two apartment residents gained access to the apartment in a manner associated with the defendant’s alleged failure to secure the premises). Although these issues have led to the demise of many other negligent security suits, the plaintiff in this case was in a strong position to make these necessary showings at trial.
First, with respect to the foreseeability of harm sufficient for a duty of care to exist, one could reasonably argue that failing to review background check information would foreseeably create a zone of risk for tenants who come into contact with a dangerous, un-vetted resident. Indeed, given the murderer’s history of making death threats and causing disruptions, as detailed in the background check conducted by the management agency, it seems reasonable to conclude that failing to review the background information created a foreseeable zone of harm for other tenants. Second, with respect to whether this alleged negligence proximately caused the former Marine’s death, one could reasonable argue that the specific harm incurred, murder, is a foreseeable result of negligently screening candidates for residency, especially when those candidates have been evicted specifically for making death threats. Indeed, given the defendant’s decision to settle, one can see that the plaintiff’s claim, while somewhat unique, was meritorious.
As noted above, cases involving negligence security or screening present particular difficulties, since a third party’s criminal conduct is often considered an overriding intervening factor for purposes of proving proximate causation. Nonetheless, courts have remained amendable to holding parties accountable when their actions or omissions could’ve stymied the third party’s opportunity to commit harm. If you’ve been harmed as a result of negligent security or some other form of negligence, you should consider finding competent counsel to determine which legal theories offer you the best opportunity of obtaining recovery. The South Florida premises liability attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have considerable experience with Florida negligence law and are prepared to offer you the guidance you may need. Feel free to contact us if you’ve recently been harmed as a result of possible negligence and are interested in a free case evaluation.