Legal reasons for landlords to stay on top of maintenance

Colin McCarthy
Colin McCarthy | 4 min. read

Published on July 13, 2011

College was fun.  Even some of the classes I took were fun.  These particular classes did not feel like work because, well, they weren’t, really.  One such class I took was “Philosophy in Literature” taught by Peter Kreeft. Our job that semester was to read four books: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (this was before they were made into movies) and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.  And then talk about them.  Yes, I know, a great class.  I got a B+ and I think that’s as good as some of the founders of Buildium… but you’d have to ask them.

One of the things we discussed about The Brothers Karamazov – in addition to the Grand Inquistor – was the concept of Sobornost.  The basic idea being that we are all part of a spiritual and physical community, and everything we do (and don’t do) effects everyone else.  Any one, small thing you do or don’t do – stepping on a caterpillar – could effect one, ten, or hundreds of other people. One of the characters in the book goes insane because he has fully embraced Sobornost and is afraid to go out into the world for fear that everything he does will adversely effect others.

As a property manager, you need not (necessarily?) fear the adverse impact of trodding upon insects to stay insulated from civil lawsuits.  But you can and should be aware that your failure to perform routine and simple property maintenance services could see you on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

At the beginning of this century, in California, “a jealous boyfriend broke into the apartment of his estranged girlfriend and murdered her.”*  The girlfriend and her child had just moved into the apartment, which was rented from the landlord and occupied by her parents.  No one – including the girlfriend, her parents, and the landlord – knew that the boyfriend had violent tendencies.

But there had been some violent incidents in the neighborhood and the apartment complex itself was fenced in.  The fence was topped with barbed wire.  The apartment in which the murder occurred had a front door made of wood with diamond and triangular shaped glass panes in its top half.  One of the glass panes was missing and only cardboard covered it.  The parents had asked that it be replaced because it made the apartment cold (not because they feared entry by criminals).  By the time of the murder, the landlord had purchased the materials ($16) but had not yet installed the pane.  The boyfriend testified that he gained access to the apartment through the cardboard slot and also that he would not have gotten into the apartment if the glass had been in place.  Apparently, his rage – though great – would not have compelled him to punch the glass and thus risk injury to his hand.  He was able to get in easily, he said, because the glass was missing.

The parents sued the landlord for their daughter’s death, and argued the landlord was negligent in not repairing the door and that this failure was a (not “the”) legal cause of their daughter’s death.  The landlord said it was not negligent because he did not have a duty to prevent the criminal activity of third parties that he did not know were violent.  The court used standard negligence principles to decide the case:  “all persons are required to use ordinary care to prevent others from being injured as the result of their conduct.”

The court looked at the preliminary obligation of the landlord – did he have a duty to prevent this injury, under the facts and circumstances here? On balance, the specific action the plaintiff’s had asked to be remedied was simple and cheap – replace a window pane.  (Had the plaintiffs argued that the landlords should have provided security guards, the court intimated a different result would have been reached.)  The risk of injury which resulted here from the failure was great:  death of a tenant. It thus allowed the plaintiff’s case to proceed to a jury trial.


*All quotes from Vasquez v. Residential Investments, Inc., 118 Cal. App. 4th 269 (2004).

This blog submission is only for purposes of disseminating information.  It does not constitute legal advice.  The statements in this blog submissions 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.

Read more on Maintenance & Improvements
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.

Be a more productive
property manager