Tevans2-cropped-sBy: Tracy M. Evans, Esq., Associate, Saxon Gilmore & Carraway, P.A.

A recent decision by Florida’s Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) reversing the 4th District Court of Appeal’s decision in Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, 96 So.3d 929 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), highlights the importance of maintaining adequate security in apartment complexes.

The Sanders case involved the 2004 murder of two young adults in the unit they rented in an apartment complex marketed as a “gated community.” The apartment complex contained a gate stretching across the front entrance, and water, walls, or fencing surrounding the remainder of the complex. The apartment complex had a policy of providing reasonable lighting, locks, and peepholes, and renters had the option of activating alarm systems contained within the individual apartment units. During the three years leading up to the murders, there were two separate criminal incidents where the front gate was broken, resulting in an armed robbery and an assault. When the murders occurred, the front gate was not operational and had been broken for two months.

The apartment complex had a policy manual recommending residents be notified when “a significant crime” occurred on the property, and that such notice be provided on the same day the incident was reported to management. In the three years immediately preceding the murders, there were 20 criminal incidents in the apartment complex including seven burglaries, two robberies, and ten car thefts. The apartment complex did not send notices to its residents regarding these incidents.

The murder victims’ personal representative brought suit against the complex owner for negligence, alleging that the complex owner failed to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition by failing to maintain the front gate, failing to provide adequate security, failing to prevent dangerous persons from gaining access to the complex, and failing to protect and warn residents of any dangerous conditions and criminal acts.

At trial, each side presented expert testimony. The personal representative’s criminology expert testified the majority of the crimes committed in the apartment complex over the past three years were “opportunistic crimes,” and it appeared the murders occurred during the course of a home invasion, an opportunistic crime. This expert also provided testimony that building personnel were trained via video to monitor opportunistic crimes, and minimize them “through awareness.” The video also expressed the importance of repairing mechanical failures, but the evidence established the front gate was inoperable when the murders occurred.

The complex owner’s expert, a security consultant, testified that the security measures provided by the apartment complex, including one-entrance apartments with dead bolt locks and steel doors, were more than reasonable and met or exceeded industry standards. The expert concluded that since there was no evidence of a forcible entry into the apartment, the perpetrators likely gained access into the apartment when one of the victims opened the door to the apartment.

The complex owner moved for a directed verdict in its favor arguing that the personal representative failed to establish that the complex owner’s acts or omissions contributed to the murders. The motion was denied, and the jury entered a verdict for the personal representative for 4.5 million dollars, finding the complex owner 40% at fault.

On appeal, the 4th District Court of Appeal (“DCA”) reversed the ruling on the motion for directed verdict, finding that the personal representative could not prove causation without evidence of how the perpetrators gained access to the apartment. The personal representative then sought review by the Supreme Court which accepted jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court issued its decision on February 12, 2015. In reviewing the 4th DCA’s decision, the Supreme Court noted the applicable standards in ruling on a motion for directed verdict. If there is only one reasonable inference that may be drawn from the evidence, a directed verdict is proper. The court noted that in reviewing a motion for directed verdict, the reviewing court must view all of the evidence and all inferences of fact in the nonmoving party’s favor. A directed verdict can only be affirmed where no proper view of the evidence could sustain a verdict in the non-moving party’s favor.

The Supreme Court determined that the evidence presented by the personal representative allowed for the reasonable inference that the complex owner’s failure to maintain the front gate may have contributed to the murders. The contention that the victims opened the door to the assailants was an issue of fact that should have been left to the jury to decide. Accordingly, the Supreme Court rejected the directed verdict entered by the 4th DCA and returned the case to the trial court for further consideration in light of its ruling. The complex owner subsequently filed a motion for rehearing which is currently pending.

Apartment complex owners should ensure adequate security measures are in place to protect residents and minimize liability. Owners should also review their current policies and procedures to ensure property management is in compliance. All security features, including gates, alarms, and locks, should undergo regular maintenance to ensure they are in good working order to protect against potential liability. While no amount of security will guarantee against criminal incidents, proper precautions will help insulate a complex owner from liability in the event a crime victim seeks damages against the complex owner.

The Supreme Court’s full opinion is available here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2015/sc12-2416.pdf

 

 

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