Landlord Faces Liability for Mishandled Complaint

 An Ohio Appellate Court recently ruled that a landlord may be liable for failing to protect a tenant from a criminal attack.

Generally, such cases are difficult to prove at best, because courts have reasoned that criminal behavior is unforeseeable, and outside of a landlord’s control.  In previous decisions, judges have held that it is unfair to find a landlord liable for failing to predict a crime.

However, in this case, the mishandling of the victim’s ongoing complaints against another resident may lead to a verdict for negligence.

According to the court record, the victim in the case was a tenant who made a noise complaint against her downstairs neighbor. She claimed that loud music and fighting was disturbing her and frightening her young daughter. The neighboring tenant lived with her boyfriend, who was not on the lease. 

The downstairs tenant and her guest were aware of who made the complaint, and began to harass and threaten the victim.  This included banging on her door loudly and other menacing acts. The manager told the victim to report any additional noise complaints to the police, which angered the couple.

The victim tenant returned to the management office and reported the continued harassment and escalating dispute.  She again was told to file a report with the police. The manager  told the victim that calling the police was necessary to provide the apartment manager the “means” needed to “take action on the matter.”

The situation took a perverse turn when the downstairs tenant’s boyfriend began to contact the victim on Facebook.  The messages indicated that he was watching the victim, and wanted a sexual relationship.    The victim reported the stalking to the manager, and expressed serious fear for her safety.  She also filed a police report, but the police did not investigate the stalking claim.

The victim went to management for help.  An employee told the victim that they could not allow her to break her lease, but that they would move her to another apartment in the complex.  The victim had to choose between an apartment that was very near the present location, or another unit farther away, but on the first floor.  The victim told the manager she was afraid of living on the first floor, but chose that of the two options being offered.

The manager then went to the downstairs tenant and told her and her boyfriend that the victim had moved, and they were to leave her alone if they saw her in the hallways, betraying the fact that the victim was still living somewhere in the complex. Then, the manager informed the boyfriend that he could not continue to live in the building unless he completed a rental application and agreed to be added to the lease.

The boyfriend completed the application. The manager ran a credit report, but did not run a criminal check, even though the manager was personally aware of the victim’s complaints against this resident, according to the record. The credit check came back negative, and the manager told the boyfriend he could not be added to the lease.

Shortly after, and while still living in the complex, the boyfriend broke into the victim’s unit, and beat and raped her in the presence of her young child.  The man was charged and convicted of the crimes, and sentenced to nine years in prison.

The victim them brought a civil suit against the apartment complex for negligence.  The trial court said that the landlord could not be liable for the tenant’s injuries, because the rape was an unpredictable act.

But, according to the appellate court, the trial court was in error for characterizing the tenant’s concerns as simply a “noise complaint”, which minimized the potential danger the victim faced. The court ruled that a jury could reasonably conclude that the landlord, through it’s employees, may be negligent in this case.

The matter will now proceed to trial before a jury.

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