The Massachusetts Court of Appeals has again reviewed the issue of a landlord’s duty to prevent harm. In Carine Belizaire v. Deborah A. Furr (September 11, 2015), the court examined a landlord’s liability where a victim was shot and killed at the landlord’s property. The court concluded that the plaintiff, administratrix of the victim’s estate, could not establish the essential elements of a negligence claim and therefore upheld the lower court’s ruling for the landlord. Read the entire Court of Appeals opinion HERE.
The court reiterates the general standard that “For the defendant ‘[t]o be liable for negligent conduct, [she] must have failed to discharge a duty of care owed to the [victim], harm must have been reasonably foreseeable, and the breach or negligence must have been the proximate or legal cause of the [victim's] injury.’” For landlords, there are important best practices for managing rental property that we can take from this case.
- Always create a lease or tenancy with a written document. In Belizaire v. Furrs, the landlord did not have a written lease. A tenancy limits the landlord’s control over the property and “substantially increases the plaintiff’s burden in establishing that the [landlord] owed the victim a duty to protect against the criminal acts of third parties”. It is possible to establish an oral lease, but it is best to put the issue to rest with a written lease. This lease should provide for the payment of rent and should provide the tenant with the sole right to occupy the unit (subject to landlord access rights).
- Provide in that lease that criminal acts are grounds for termination of the lease and eviction from the property. The court noted that liability has been imposed on landlords where a person legally on the premises is attacked, and the owner or landlord knew of or should have known of both the previous attacks and the potential for a recurrence and failed to take measures to make the premises safer. In Belizaire v. Furrs, there was no history of criminal or violent acts occurring in the unit or with respect to the occupant. If there is such a history, a landlord will need the legal right to remove the risk by removing the tenant.
- Landlords should actively manage their property. If a violent event occurs on the property, a landlord should take immediate steps to make the property safer. Note, however, that there are specific eviction and other protections for victims of domestic violence.
Belizaire v. Furrs serves as a reminder that landlords should in all occupancy arrangements use a written lease and actively manage the property so that they can rebut a claim that a violent act on the property was foreseeable.