The Virginia Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the landlord of an Arlington apartment complex is not liable for the injuries of a tenant who was raped in her apartment, even though he failed to obey a county dead-bolt lock ordinance.
The ruling reverses a 1983 Circuit Court jury decision that found negligence on the part of the owners and managers of the Buckingham Apartments and awarded the tenant $150,000.
The court ruled that the landlord could not be held liable for injuries "due to the criminal conduct of a third party," and that the Arlington ordinance, which requires the installation of a dead-bolt lock in an apartment before it is leased, is preempted by a less stringent state law.
According to court documents, the case involved a woman in her mid-twenties who was raped in February 1981 in her one-bedroom apartment in the 1,821-unit complex off Glebe Road north of Rte. 50. The attacker was never apprehended.
The tenant sued Buckingham Apartments Ltd., a Columbus, Ohio-based partnership that owned the complex at that time, and the Klingbeil Management Group Co., also of Columbus, which then managed the apartments. The complex is now under different ownership and management.
According to trial testimony, the tenant was attacked by a man who probably entered through the front door of her apartment. The door was equipped with a standard lock, and she had made verbal requests that a dead bolt be installed, according to testimony.
The state high court said that Circuit Court Judge Charles H. Duff, who presided over the trial, was in error when he allowed the jury to hold the landlord liable in the rape.
"Traditionally, a landlord owes the duty to his tenants to exercise ordinary care to maintain areas over which he has control in a reasonably safe condition, rather than the duty to act as a policeman," said the high court ruling.
Duff was also in error in instructing the jury that a violation of the Arlington dead-bolt ordinance could be construed as negligence, said the ruling.
The Arlington ordinance is tougher than the state's Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, under which landlords of buildings with five or more units must install dead-bolt locks "upon the written request of the tenant." While the tenant "probably made an oral request prior to the incident for installation of a dead bolt on her apartment door, no request in writing was made by the tenant as required by the act," said the appellate ruling.
Attorneys for the tenant had argued that the local law, though tougher, was consistent with state law and was simply "designed to effect compliance with local property maintenance codes." The high court disagreed, ruling that the installation of locks pertains to security rather than maintenance.
In approving the state statute, it was the legislature's intent "to establish a single body of law relating to landlord and tenant relations in the commonwealth," said the ruling.
Robert W. Goodson, attorney for the rape victim, said, "My client is very disappointed" in the outcome of the case."
"The Arlington County ordinance is clearly designed to protect tenants from such a crime, and two different juries and a well-respected trial judge also felt so," he said. An earlier Circuit Court jury verdict, also in favor of the tenant, had been set aside because of improper questioning of potential jurors.
George Nickerson, general counsel with the Klingbeil Management Group, declined to comment on the ruling.