In the event of a violent crime, victims or surviving family members may be left emotionally shattered and unsure of what to do next. In cases where the attacker is identified and arrested, that case will move through the criminal justice system, which may sometimes offer victims restitution.
However, there may be a possibility to hold the accused – as well as other third parties – responsible in civil court. In the recent case of Galanis v. CMA Management, before the Mississippi Supreme Court, representatives for the estate of a man murdered by his roommate took action against the apartment complex where he resided, alleging failure to warn of the attacker’s known violent tendencies.
Initially, a trial court judge ruled that a “resident concern form” that described the attacker’s violent intent toward a previous roommate was not sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the management for the apartment complex was aware of the tenant’s violent nature – and thus had a duty to warn his new roommate. On review by the state supreme court, that ruling was reversed and the case will now proceed to trial.
The legal theory upon which plaintiffs are relying is known as “premises liability.” It holds that property owners and managers owe a duty of care to invited guests or tenants to ensure the property is reasonably safe. Where it is not reasonably safe, the property owner or manager has a duty to take action to mitigate the risk and/ or warn about it.
This may include threats from third parties. In an apartment complex, it could be something general, like a failure to place working locks on apartment doors. This would be a form of inadequate security that would create an unreasonable risk of danger of intruders. Or it could be something specific, like in this case, where a single person posed a known threat and the property owners or managers failed to take action. The key is whether the criminal act was within the realm of reasonable foreseeability.
Here, according to court records, the alleged attacker had been placed with another roommate prior to the one subject to this case. He later filed a complaint with the management company in which he alleged his roommate was untidy, failed to take out the trash and insects had begun to accumulate in their kitchen. He implored the management company to take action “before I get violent” and adding something needed to be done “before I take matters into my own hands.”
The two were separated. After that, defendant management company declined to renew the letter writer’s lease term, as it found a criminal history for felony credit card fraud. His lawyer intervened, and explained there had been no convictions, as adjudication was withheld, and his lease was renewed. Another man (decedent) also applied for a lease term. Management thought they may be a good match based on their love of football and similar ages. The two met briefly before agreeing to the arrangement.
Several months later, decedent learned thousands of dollars was missing from his bank account. He suspected his roommate. He notified apartment managers of the problem. He then went to the bank and the local police department to report the incident. The next day, his body was found inside the apartment in a wheelbarrow, wrapped in a rug. His roommate was later convicted of murder.
Family of the victim later sued the apartment complex, alleging failure to provide a reasonably safe premises and failure to warn decedent about the attacker’s violent tendencies and failure to perform adequate background checks.
The management company argued it had no actual or constructive knowledge of the tenant’s violent tendencies and therefore owed no duty to protect victim from him. Plaintiffs countered with the letter the attacker had written regarding his previous roommate. Although trial court ruled this wasn’t enough to establish actual or constructive knowledge of violent tendencies – and the appeals court affirmed – the state supreme court reversed.
The court ruled that although the wording of that resident complaint form could be interpreted in different ways, that was a consideration for the jury to make. When weighed in the light most favorable to non-moving party (plaintiff), as is the standard in summary judgment rulings, this was sufficient to find the apartment management had actual knowledge of the tenant’s violent tendencies, which established a duty of care to decedent.
To file a premises liability lawsuit in South Florida, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Galanis v. CMA Management, Oct. 8, 2015, Mississippi Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Hayes v. City of Plummer – Premises Liability and Recreational Use Statutes, Oct. 4, 2015, West Palm Beach Premises Liability Lawyer Blog