It’s all about the relationship

Colin McCarthy
Colin McCarthy | 3 min. read

Published on May 16, 2013

Years ago we all saw that movie about Facebook and how it took off when the founder had the thought that you could advertise your relationship status on “The Facebook.” Are you single? Dating a couple folks? Or in a relationship? (Colin McCarthy is in a relationship, a married relationship, with another Facebook user). It’s all about the relationships, people!  It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.


It’s not that you did anything wrong, it’s that you hired someone who did something wrong. Wait, what? What did you just say? Did you just say I can be liable for what my girlfriend, I mean my wife, did? No, I said you can be liable even though you did not do anything wrong, because you are in a special relationship with someone.

And when I say you, I mean the landlord. And when I say special, I do not mean romantic.  Ordinarily the law in California will not impose a duty on the landlord (or anyone for that matter) for the wrongful acts or omissions of someone else, absent a “special relationship.” For example, once your little children reach the “age of majority” (18 years), what they do, legally, most of the time can’t be tagged to you. But if there is a special relationship with the adult child (a history of custody and ability to control said adult child due to violent tendencies), there might be a duty to certain third parties.

A special relationship really is just the judge’s way of attaching liability to a deep-pocketed defendant if there are circumstances that warrant it.  Such a special relationship will make more sense when a person (or entity) works at the behest of (or on behalf of) another to accomplish that other’s work. A big factor in this relationship liability attachment is, as discussed above, control. But it is not determinative. What is determinative is whether public policy reasons (from those Rowland factors discussed a long time ago) merit the attachment of liability. Is the plaintiff severely harmed? Is there some moral culpability to the defendant’s conduct? Is it foreseeable to be harmed in such circumstances? Is there insurance?

The courts mesh these factors together in relationship cases and apply “vicarious liability” in cases “where the interests of justice demand it.”*  This is a broad phrase and a discretionary brush with which the court interpreting it has many options. We’ll discuss some scenarios in the next few blog posts in which landlords have to deal with the demanding justice of vicarious liability.

*Roberts v. Craig, 124 Cal. App. 2d 202, 208 (1954)

This blog submission is only for purposes of disseminating information. It does not constitute legal advice. The statements in this blog submission do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Robinson & Wood, Inc. or its clients. No attorney-client relationship is formed by virtue of reading this blog entry or submitting a comment thereto. If you need legal advice, please hire a licensed attorney in your state.

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Colin McCarthy

Colin G. McCarthy is a partner in the business litigation, products liability, and insurance practice groups at Robinson & Wood in San Jose, California.

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