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A landlord's responsibility for the criminal acts of others

When one rents an apartment, one should expect that the apartment complex has adequate security measures in place. Unfortunately, all too often that is not the case. The 2013 decision by the Illinois Court of Appeals of Merriweather v. Corey addressed just such a case and is instructive on when residential landlords face potential liability for the criminal acts of third parties.

The facts

A young lady and her mother moved into a two-story apartment building that housed four apartments. At the front of the building was a door that led to a common area with a staircase. The victim's apartment was located on the second floor and had a rear door that led on to a balcony. One evening, the locked door of their apartment was kicked in and someone began shooting. The young lady was hit and severely injured. She was certain that the person that shot her had come through the common area door and recalled that when she moved in, the doorknob on the door leading into the common area was "barely hanging on" and the top lock was missing. The young lady brought it to the landlord's attention on a number of occasions and was told that it would be fixed, but no repair work was ever done. The young lady also complained about both the common area and outside lights often being burned out, and the lights had indeed been out for days before she was attacked. The victim lady sued the landlord for failing to maintain and repair proper security measures for access into the building

The law as it applies

The court found that, as a general rule and absent a special relationship, a landowner has no duty to protect others from the criminal activities of third parties. However, as with any general rule, there are exceptions and Illinois courts have recognized two.

The first is the voluntary undertaking exception. This is where a landlord decides voluntarily to provide security measures but is negligent in doing so and such action is the proximate cause of an injury to a tenant. An Illinois appellate court in 1991, Shea v. Preservation Chicago, Inc., found that a landlord's failure to repair an interior security door and lock as promised was such a voluntary undertaking. However, the court inMerriweather drew a distinction with that case and decided that the landlord did not decide on his own to protect the tenants from harm by criminals by providing a common area door with a lock or lighting.

The second exception which Illinois courts recognize may impose liability on a landlord for a criminal act by a third party when the landlord has notice of prior criminal acts connected with the physical condition of the property and similar to the one that caused the injury complained of. Citing a 1986 state appellate decision, Duncavage v. Allen, wherein a landlord knew that a ladder stored on the premises had been previously used to break into an apartment, the landlord there was found to have notice when it happened to another victim. But in the Merriweather case, the young lady could not point to any similar acts that happened on the premises. The court decided that a sole incident of an assault and robbery a year before was not sufficient notice.

As these cases point out, the law regarding landlord liability for criminal acts that occur on a premises is complex, factual discovery is vital, and the skill of an experienced Illinois personal injury attorney is essential.

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