Courts across the United States are struggling with the question of whether condominium associations should be held liable for security problems at their complexes in the same way landlords are considered responsible for the protection of tenants.
In a landmark condominium case decided in 1983, the California Court of Appeal held that an association had a duty to take reasonable measures to protect resident homeowners from foreseeable crimes. If it didn't, the association could be liable for huge damage awards to victims of crimes at the condominium complex, which would have to be paid by association members.
The California court system, however, late last year issued an additional ruling saying that the case, Troy v. Village Green Condominium Project, could not be used as a precedent. The case is now before the California Supreme Court on appeal, and condominium lawyers say they believe the judgment may be reversed.
"One speculation is that the case went too far" in favor of the victim, said Wayne Hyatt, an Atlanta condominium lawyer. "If they reverse it, it could be a signal to other courts."
Victims of crimes, particularly women who have been raped, are beginning to sue all types of property owners on the basis that property owners -- be they landlords or condominium associations -- may have contributed to the crime through negligence.
Such third-party suits -- so called because they are not against the perpetrator of the crime but someone else -- have begun to net considerable jury awards for damages, and courts increasingly have found that landlords of all types are responsible to a certain degree to protect tenants against predictable crimes.
When the landlord is a condominium association, however, responsibility becomes a more complex question for the courts, Hyatt said, and judges find it difficult to draw clear standards for what condominiums must do to protect residents.
In Troy v. Village Green, a woman named Frances Troy was raped and robbed after battling with her condominium association over the right to install additional exterior lighting on her unit during a crime wave at the 64-acre complex.
Troy charged the association with negligence for not providing additional exterior lighting and said it should not have forced her to remove a light she had installed.
The California court ruled that, while there was no case law dealing with the issue of liability for a condominium association, an analogy could be drawn from landlord-tenant cases. The court then found that, because landlords are required to protect tenants from forseeable injuries, a condominium association also should be liable.
The court found that, because the association was aware of the crime wave and because Troy's unit already had been burglarized, it should have been able to foresee that Troy was vulnerable.
In a more recent case in Illinois, the courts ruled that a condominium association can be held liable for unforseeable crimes if the association has promised to provide certain types of security and services but has failed to do so.
"There are lots of cases that show the standard of responsibility for landlords has been adopted for condominiums," Stephen A. Spitz, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, told a group of condominium lawyers meeting in Washington this week. "If crime is up and the condominium association's security is down, for whatever reason, you are really asking for trouble."
Spitz said that many condominiums include in their documents commitments to provide security and that, in addition, developers selling condominium units often promise extensive security systems to make them more marketable.
Spitz said that such promises and commitments could get a condominium association in trouble if security is relaxed later and someone is hurt.
"If an association is on a course to discontinue existing security services, it should only do so after taking a survey of the unit owners on the cost-benefit issue and then taking a vote," said Michael Hyman, a Florida condominium lawyer. He said an association also could be found liable if it budgeted a certain amount of money for security but then didn't use it, on the basis that residents would be given a false sense of security.
"Personal injury lawyers are finding themselves shut out of certain areas of the law and have recently discovered that condominium associations could be fertile ground for suits," he said. "There are thousands and thousands of people living in condominium associations, and personal injury lawyers see that. We're just in the infancy of the development of such cases, and we can expect to see lots more in the near future."