Landlord Liability for Criminal Activity in a Rental Property
In addition to being responsible for injuries to your tenants that may be the result of dangerous structural conditions or environmental health hazards on your rental property, you can potentially be liable for injuries arising from the criminal activities of third parties. While this may not seem fair at first, this responsibility falls under your general duty to provide a safe and habitable living environment to your tenants, as well as local and a handful of state laws. Taking some common sense steps, as well as complying with any specific requirements in your jurisdiction, can go a long way toward keeping your tenants safe, and insulating yourself from the significant monetary liability that can arise from injuries to tenants due to criminal acts.
Preventing Crime and Minimizing Liability
Some of the most effective steps you can take toward keeping your tenants safe are also the most affordable, and they start with preventing crime from occurring. Maintaining good lighting on the exterior of the building, in parking areas, and in hallways, as well as sturdy and well-functioning locks on doors and windows are two of the most basic ways to stave off criminal activity. Many local housing and building codes may have rules regarding security measures such as locks, so be sure you are meeting or exceeding those requirements. It is also advisable to keep any bushes or shrubbery trimmed back so that your landscaping does not provide a place for criminals to hide. If you employ staff on-site such as a property manager, be sure they are well-versed in crime prevention measures, and help you to identify potential risks associated with your property.
Depending on the property’s location and other circumstances, it may make financial sense to invest in hiring a doorman, installing security cameras, and/or installing an intercom system for tenants to use when allowing guests into the building. Many landlords also have a strict system for keeping track of keys, which often involves prohibiting duplication without permission, as well as changing locks when tenants move out. Conducting regular inspections of your property, and perhaps enlisting the help of the local police for crime prevention tips, can also be essential to preventing crime and doing your due diligence from a legal standpoint. Make sure that you also purchase adequate insurance to cover the possible losses associated with the types of crime that your property or tenants may be a target for.
Responding to Reports or Concerns of Criminal Activity
In order to maintain the security of your rental property, and to minimize potential liability in the event that you are sued following a criminal incident, it is advisable to respond promptly to any tenant safety concerns or suggestions, and also to be forthcoming with your knowledge of any criminal activity in the area that may be relevant to your tenants. Further, if a tenant alerts you to a possible security compromise, such as a situation in which a tenant’s backpack containing their ID and keys has been stolen, it is worthwhile to pay the cost of quickly changing any necessary locks to prevent harm to your tenant as well as to lessen your legal liability should a subsequent break-in occur.
Violence Perpetrated by Your Tenants or Employees
If you learn of or reasonably suspect that violence is occurring between any of your tenants or at the hands of one of your employees against a tenant, you have a responsibility to act. In situations involving domestic violence or other physical disputes between tenants, you must contact law enforcement, and you may be required to warn the intended victim. Depending on the severity of the conduct, it may be appropriate to evict the violent tenant. Prevention is important in this context, and careful screening of both your tenants as well as your employees is critical to identifying any potential concerns in an applicant’s background before you rent to or hire them. Failure to be thorough at this early stage can result in serious harm to your tenants, and significant liability for you as a landlord and/or as an employer for negligence in hiring.
Crime and Nuisance Laws
If your rental property becomes the site of ongoing criminal activity, such as drug dealing or prostitution, and you do not adequately respond to put a stop to it (through measures such as contacting law enforcement or evicting the offending tenants), you run the risk of being sued for creating a public nuisance. These types of lawsuits are typically brought by local government entities, though at times they can be pursued by individuals as well, and they are intended to address activity that prevents others from using and enjoying their property. State laws regarding the extent of a landlord’s responsibility for this kind of conduct vary, but they can include stiff civil and criminal penalties, including forfeiture of assets such as your rental property.