Landlord Negligence: Your Landlord Could Be Held Liable for Sexual Assault

By March 12, 2019 Blog
landlord negligence

In civil court, the perpetrator of sexual assault isn’t the only one who can be held liable. Civil courts allow victims the opportunity to sue third parties for sexual assault, including property landlords. This liability is particularly helpful when the identity of the perpetrator is unknown or when the perpetrator can’t afford to compensate the plaintiff for personal damages suffered as a result of the abuse.

If you were sexually assaulted on your rental property and your landlord failed to uphold their end of the rental agreement, they can be held liable. In this article, you will learn the legal responsibilities of a landlord when it comes to the safety of their tenants and how to obtain a recovery in civil court for landlord negligence.  

What Liability Does a California Landlord Have in Preventing Sexual Assault?

Plaintiffs must prove that the landlord knew or should have known of a danger or risk to tenants and failed to take protective measures. In the State of California, the courts have become more willing to hold landlords accountable when sexual assaults occur on their properties.

The elements of a landlord negligence lawsuit include:

  • Duty of care: Landlords have a legal requirement to reasonably protect tenants from harm by following the generally accepted standard of care assumed by other landlords.  
  • Breach of duty: The landlord, in some way, failed to provide adequate protection.
  • Causation: The breach of duty directly led to the adverse event.
  • Damages: The tenant suffered injury and loss as a result of the landlord’s breached duty.

California law dictates that landlords are responsible for:

  • Securing all common areas of the rental property (CAL. CIV. CODE § 1941.3): Landlords owe tenants a duty of care to secure common areas such as lobbies, stairwells, elevators, hallways, laundry facilities, parking lots, gyms, rec rooms, and swimming pools under their control. Security measures include: properly securing doors with locking mechanisms to prohibit strangers from entering and providing sufficient lighting. Additional optional measures, depending on the neighborhood, may include video surveillance, security gates at the entrance, motion sensors, and security guards.    
  • Installing basic security features on each resident’s unit (CAL. CIV. CODE § 1941.3): Basic security features include: secure doors with functional key locks, working locks for all windows, appropriate lighting fixtures outside the unit, smoke detectors, and carbon monoxide detectors. California landlords with tenant contracts signed on or after July 1, 1998 must install and maintain a deadbolt lock on all swinging entry doors in the tenant’s unit. Tenants are responsible for notifying the landlord if a door or window lock is inoperable and the landlord must undertake repairs within a reasonable timeframe.
  • Taking “reasonable measures” to protect tenants from “foreseeable” crime (CAL. CIV. CODE § 1714): A landlord can be held liable for third-party criminal activity such as assault, battery, robbery, rape, and murder when the landlord knew or should have known about an increased risk of crime and failed to take action. While a landlord can’t deny a person housing based on past history of drug or gang activity under the Fair Housing Act, the landlord can and should take measures to file police reports, warn, or evict tenants engaging in such behavior on the premises.
  • Abiding by restraining orders and acting upon police reports (CAL CIV CODE 1941.5): Landlords have a legal responsibility to change the locks of a tenant’s unit within 24 hours when a vulnerable tenant notifies the landlord of a police report or restraining order related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. As per the Safe Housing Act, a tenant who has such a complaint about another tenant in the complex may be released from their lease or force the offending tenant out. A victim may terminate a lease with 14 days’ notice and proof of victim status (CIV. CODE 1946.7). A landlord cannot retaliate against a sexual assault victim by refusing to renew tenancy (CIV. CODE 1161.3).
  • Informing tenants of their right to seek information about their neighbors (CAL. CIV. CODE 2079.10a): All rental contracts must include language informing residents of their right to access registered sex offender information at www.meganslaw.ca.gov. The onus is then on residents to determine whether any risks exist in the residential complex.

Surprisingly, California landlords are not required to screen a prospective tenant’s criminal record and must not discriminate prospective tenants—even those who appear in the Megan’s Law database. Since California law prohibits consumer reports from including arrests, indictments, or misdemeanors that did not result in conviction or crimes that occurred more than seven years ago, screening may not provide an adequate risk assessment.

Landlords Can Also Be Sued Directly for Sexual Harassment

Naturally, landlords and property managers are not above the law. Sometimes they are the direct defendants in sexual assault or harassment cases. CAL. CIV. CODE 51.9 defines landlords as one of the parties that has a “professional relationship.” As such, landlords must not make sexual advances, requests, solicitations, or demands for sexual compliance with their tenants. They must not engage in visual, verbal, or physical unwelcome sexual conduct based on gender.

State and federal fair housing laws hold that a landlord can’t deflect liability onto a property manager or maintenance worker. The landlords themselves can be found legally and financially responsible for employees who sexually assault or harass tenants.  

An Example of Landlord Negligence in Court

A landlord negligence ruling in Houston, TX determined that property owners have a legal responsibility to notify residents of danger. A woman was sexually assaulted by a masked man for more than 10 hours in her apartment complex. According to her lawsuit, apartment officials were aware of a break-in and attempted rape next door a few weeks earlier, but failed to notify residents that a sexual predator was at large. Instead, they issued a notice that an apartment had been “broken into,” without indicating the severity of the crime. The jury awarded a $20 million verdict in favor of the plaintiff, which included $7 million for physical pain and mental anguish, $5 million for future mental anguish, and $8 million for forbidden conduct. The perpetrator was eventually caught and sentenced to 20 years in state prison.

Contact California Attorneys to Fight Landlord Negligence

Due to the complex nature of sexual abuse, it’s best to retain an attorney who has substantial experience and knows how to navigate various types of sexual abuse cases, including those that occurred as a result of landlord negligence. It’s important to have an attorney who can foresee what damages can reasonably be gained, given your unique circumstances. The right lawyer will be devoted to the cause of justice for sexual abuse survivors and will serve as your advocate and confidant throughout the litigation process.   

At Lewis & Llewellyn, we seek to effect real change in the lives of those impacted by abuse, as well as society as a whole, by strategically bringing civil proceedings that shine a spotlight on the individuals and entities that condone, cover up, or turn a blind eye to sexual abuse and harassment.

You deserve to have a compassionate advocate who believes you and will navigate the many and nuanced damages you have suffered as a result of your abuse. We can’t promise you’ll receive a specific amount of money, but we can guarantee the best legal remedy from our team of experienced California sex abuse lawyers. Contact us today, or call +1 (415) 800-0590 to set up a free initial consultation.

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