Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Is A Property Owner or Landlord Liable for A Sexual Assault on their Premises in California?

As an attorney in California that represents victims of sexual assault, one of the main scenarios that I have to analyze is whether or not a landlord or property owner can be held financially responsible for a sexual assault that occurs on their premises.  From a legal standpoint, this question comes down to two primary and related factors of "causation" and "foreseeability".  In other words, did the property owner have enough knowledge that they could have foreseen that a criminal battery may have occurred and did something they did or didn't do cause the assault to be more likely to happen.  To show what I mean, let me examine two fact patterns from recent cases as follows:

Example of A Case Where the Property Owner Was Not be Held At Fault for the Sexual Assault

In Nola M. v. University of Southern California (1993) 16 Cal.App.4th 421, a student at USC was sexually assaulted in a common area on the campus of the college.  She was, unfortunately, not able to identify her attackers or even where they came from or how they got onto the property.  The court ruled that the university couldn't be held liable because the plaintiff student was not able to demonstrate that they college could have foreseen such an attack or could have done anything differently that would have prevented it. The court held as follows: “When an injury can be prevented by a lock or a fence or a chain across a driveway or some other physical device, a landowner's failure to erect an appropriate barrier can be the legal cause of an injury inflicted by the negligent or criminal act of a third person" but, that where there was no evidence that any such measures could have prevented the crime, the landowner could not be held responsible.

Example of A Landlord Being Held Responsible for A Sexual Assault

By contrast to the Nola v. USC case, the court in Raven H. v. Gamette, 157 Cal. App. 4th 1017, a tenant in an apartment complex was raped and it was shown that the rapist gained entry into her dwelling by way of a window that was not properly secured by the landlord and in an area that was not well lit due to burned out light bulbs.  In this case the court made a ruling that the landlord should be held responsible for the sexual assault because it was foreseeable that the failure to provide proper locks on the window or to maintain lighting could make it more likely that an assailant could come onto the property and commit a crime.  The court held as follows:

"...foreseeability may arise directly from the risk created by the original act of negligence: ‘If the likelihood that a third person may act in a particular manner is the hazard or one of the hazards which makes the actor negligent, such an act whether innocent, negligent, intentionally tortious, or criminal does not prevent the actor from being liable for harm caused thereby. . .. Bearing in mind that we address only the issue of causation, we conclude that there are triable issues of material fact regarding whether the decedent's and [landlord's] efforts to keep unauthorized persons out of the apartment complex, and their allegedly not providing plaintiff with security devices provided to other tenants, were substantial factors in causing plaintiff's injuries."

CONCLUSION to be Drawn From These Contrasting Cases

Every case involving a sexual assault on private property must be analyzed by a personal injury attorney that is familiar with these issues.  There must be prompt investigation which includes inspection of the area where the crime occurred, the history of prior incidents which may be same or similar, the standards for security measures including guards, locks, security gates and other precautions taken or not taken and many other related issues.  This is why it is always best to retain a lawyer as soon as possible after the incident to determine if a claim or claims may be made against the property owner, any security contractors or any other entity responsible for maintenance of the facility.