Is a Landlord Liable to a Tenant for Criminal Acts of a Third Party?

Being a landlord carries with it certain risks, many of which are obvious.  One concern, which is fortunately not a commonly reported one, is whether a landlord is liable for criminal acts perpetrated on a tenant on the leased premises.  The answer is a definite “maybe.”

In Pennsylvania, a landlord, generally, does not have liability to a tenant for damages caused by the criminal acts of third parties.  If a landlord decides to provide a security program, however, he must go on to use due care to maintain it.  A failure of the system caused by landlord’s negligence could result in liability.  To put it another way, there is no duty to provide for a program of security against crime, but once such a program is provided, the landlord cannot be negligent in his manner of providing it. 

Likewise, if a landlord does provide a security program, a tenant can only rely reasonably on the program that is offered; the tenant cannot claim the landlord is negligent for not providing a more protective and extensive program.  For example, if a landlord’s safety program provides only one guard in the parking garage for the evening hours, a tenant cannot rely on that system to claim that a landlord was negligent in not providing one guard in the property’s parking garage and another guard at the property’s front door on a 24 hour per day basis. 

Surprisingly (and thankfully), there are not many cases on this topic in Pennsylvania.  The leading Pennsylvania case in this area is Feld v. Merriam, which sets forth the basic legal principles set forth above.

Obviously, failures in routine maintenance can dovetail with an existing program of protection to result in landlord liability.  For example, in Reider v. Martin, which relied on the Feld case, failure to fix an inoperable lock in a front door of a multi-unit apartment building (despite several assurances to the tenants that the lock would be fixed) resulted in liability to the landlord when an intruder entered the building and assaulted one of the tenants before she could safely enter her apartment.  One important point coming from the Reider case is that something as simple as a front door lock can be a “program of security.”  The question is whether the “program promises to provide an additional factor of safety.”  It should be surprising to no one that providing a working lock on a front door is not only a “program of security” but also a minimum standard of care the landlord should engage in.  As an aside, failure to provide that minimum standard of care also might suffice as a breach of the implied warranty of habitability in the residential context, or as a breach of the standard tenant fall-back, the covenant of quiet enjoyment, in either the residential or commercial context.

Case law does not give a landlord much guidance as to how far it can go before being subjected to liability.  Unfortunately the present state of the law infuses the decision-making process with a “no good deed goes unpunished” flavor.  Any step toward a “program of security” results in liability when there is any related slip-up by the landlord after taking that step.  This is as it should be, but in many situations it creates the perverse effect of removing a landlord’s incentive to do anything. Like many other aspects of landlord-tenant relations, the question becomes an economic one, not a legal one – how little does a landlord need to offer current and prospective tenants and still fill his space?

If you are a landlord, and this article leads you to wonder whether what you are doing is good, bad or indifferent with respect to your tenant’s safety or your liability exposure, there are no simple answers.  However, if you have questions about the latter, your liability exposure, we are happy to review them.



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