Each day hundreds of people become victims of sexual assault. Rapes and other sex crimes can occur anywhere. At home, in a car, at college or in alley. If the victim comes forward and the police catch the offender, there is a good chance that the offender goes to prison. Although that may give some closure to victims and their families, simply putting the offender behind bars doesn’t mean justice has been served.
Victims are entitled to damages for the emotional and physical trauma of the assault. In this post we examine whether apartment complexes can be held liable for the actions of a predator. We begin with a real story from Pensacola, Florida.
12-year-old Naomi Jones disappeared from her mother’s apartment in Pensacola, Florida on Memorial Day week in 2017. Her body was found days later in nearby Eight Mile Creek. She had been abducted and murdered.
The sheriff’s department said she died as the result of "homicide violence of undetermined means." An autopsy later said she died of asphyxiation. Duct tape and plastic was found in her hair.
It is not clear if she was assaulted but the person arrested for her murder was 38-year-old Robert Letroy Howard, a convicted sex offender from nearby Alabama. At the time of Naomi’s disappearance Howard was staying with his girlfriend in the same apartment as Naomi and her family.
Howard confessed but his lawyers say his confession wasn’t voluntary. He was due to go to trial in the spring of 2020 but his trial has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. He is in jail while awaiting trial.
As noted earlier, Howard’s arrest gives some closure to Naomi’s family. If convicted, Howard will never offend again. Originally prosecutors wanted the death penalty but now say they are looking for life in prison. If convicted of first degree murder he will most likely never walk the streets again.
The media is focused on the criminal trial but there is another aspect to this case. Naomi’s mother Shantara Hurry filed a civil lawsuit against the owner of the apartment complex. That case was settled last month for $2 million.
How is the apartment complex liable? Shantara says the complex had a duty to protect residents of the complex from a known and registered sex offender.
According to the lawsuit, the apartment complex management breached their duty to provide "reasonable care" by "permitting an unregistered sex offender to reside upon the premises, thus allowing the offender continual, unfettered access to young children and others upon whom persons with his predilections are known to prey."
She also said the complex either knew or should have known that he was a registered sex offender and was frequently on the premises. She says the management were negligent because they failed to take action.
The complex denied any liability and settled without admitting any wrongdoing. That they paid $2,000,000.00 says it all.
In a press conference, Naomi’s mother said, “I would like them to be more concerned about their children’s safety. There is no reason why a child should live and dwell somewhere and not know about the unknown dangers around them.”
Some apartment complexes take security seriously. Others do nothing. In most states, apartment complexes have legal duty to take “reasonable measures” to protect tenants and their guests from foreseeable dangers.
What is a reasonable measure? Depending on the location of the complex and criminal history in the area, reasonable measures could include hiring a security guard, vetting tenants by doing background checks, ensuring that hallway and parking lots have adequate lighting, installing good locks and windows, having cameras and having policies in place to make sure security procedures are followed.
What is a foreseeable danger? Once again, that depends on the neighborhood and the history of incidents at the complex.
The laws vary state to state but in most states, the complex owner is liable if the complex failed to take reasonable steps and the harm was foreseeable. In this case, we believe it was foreseeable that a registered sex offender previously convicted of rape might assault a child in the complex.
If the state has a safe premises law, then the victim of an assault might not even have to prove the assault was foreseeable. For example, Florida has a law that specifically requires landlords to equip their facilities with “good locks” and to take steps to maintain common areas in safe condition (Florida Statute § 83.51(2)(a)).
This doesn’t mean an apartment complexes are liable for every sexual assault or attack that occurs on the property but it certainly can be if locks are properly maintained.
In another Florida lawsuit, a woman “Polly”* rented an apartment in an old building located in Tallahassee. There were three units in the building. Access to the building was through a front or rear door. The hallway (considered common area) was poorly lit.
Polly complained to her rental agent that there was no lock on the back door and the front door lock was broken. One unit was vacant and at times, trespassers had broken into the vacant unit.
Despite her complaints, the owners of the building didn’t make any repairs, allegedly because they said it was “a waste of money.”
One night Polly was sexually assaulted at knifepoint in her building. Her attacker was apparently never caught. Polly sued her landlord for not taking reasonable steps to keep her safe. The landlord sought to dismiss the complaint saying it wasn’t reasonably foreseeable that she would be raped.
Ultimately, an appeals court ruled that whether or not her assault was foreseeable was irrelevant. Because Florida law requires landlords to provide adequate locks and secure the common area, the foreseeability of her assault becomes secondary.
“In view of the obvious purpose of the statutory duty to provide locks and security to prevent potential damages caused by the acts of unwarranted trespassers on the leased premises, we expressly decline to require as the essential predicate to liability allegation and proof that the landlord had actual or constructive knowledge of prior similar criminal acts committed on the premises. We are not willing to give the landlord one free ride, as it were, and sacrifice the first victim's right to safety upon the altar of foreseeability by slavishly adhering to the now-discredited notion that at least one criminal assault must have occurred on the premises before the landlord can be held liable.”
Landlords Can Be Liable for Sexual Assaults
In summary, landlords and apartment complex owners can be held responsible for sexual assaults on the property if they violate a law that requires certain tenant protections or if they are negligent. In the latter case, the victim of the assault must show the assault was foreseeable and that the complex or property owner failed to take reasonable steps. The term “reasonable” really depends on the circumstances. A complex in a high crime area needs to take more measures than one in a neighborhood considered safe.
If you or a loved one were sexually assaulted in an apartment complex or rental unit, contact us immediately.
To get the maximum compensation for your injuries, you need lawyers who are both aggressive and experienced. Brian Mahany and his handpicked team have a long history of pursuing sex offenders. Brian is a former police officer, prosecutor, and board member of the Family Violence Project. He is also a former volunteer with the Sexual Assault Crisis and Assault Center.
If you are the victim of sexual abuse of a minor, sexual assault, rape, incest or sexual molestation, call us. Brian and his network can be reached online, by email [hidden email] or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are kept strictly confidential.