Landlords may have “sweeping” new duty to protect tenants in SC

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Apartments’ courtesy officer program may create liability

It is not uncommon for apartment complex managers to exchange reduced rent for the casual services of resident law enforcement officers. These services may include parking law enforcement vehicles on the property, answering security calls regarding incidents in the complex, and walking the property in uniform. A recent South Carolina Supreme Court case* may have imposed liability on apartment complexes employing these tactics to protect tenants from criminal acts of third parties.

Denise Wright was abducted and robbed at gunpoint by two assailants in the common area of Wellspring apartment complex within the Harbison community near Columbia. The incident took place after Wright left choir practice at her church at around 10 o’clock on a September night in 2008. The assailants were never apprehended. Wright had lived at Wellspring since 2003. She became interested in Wellspring because of its proximity to her job and because of recommendations from several church members. She testified that security was an important factor in her decision.

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Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Wright testified that at the time she signed her lease, a Wellspring manager told her there were security officers on duty. The defendants conceded this fact. Wright testified this representation made her believe Wellspring would be a safe place to live.

An internal Wellspring employee manual stated, “We generally do not provide security for our residents, and employees should never indicate that we do so.” Wellspring had designed a courtesy officer program allowing residents affiliated with law enforcement to receive reduced rent in exchange for spending a minimum of two hours daily of their off-duty time walking the property, answering calls regarding incidents on the property and submitting daily reports to the property manager. The parameters of these agreements were not revealed to other tenants. Wellspring published a “security pager” number in a monthly tenant newsletter. The newsletter also prominently noted that security was a top priority with the complex and advised tenants to call the security pager or Richland County Sheriff’s Department if they saw “anything suspicious”.

There were no courtesy officers at Wellspring on the night of the abduction and robbery; in fact, the last time a courtesy officer had been employed was the previous July. Wellspring had continued to publish the pager number in its monthly newsletter. The tenants were not informed that there were no courtesy officers.

Wright argued, among other things, that Wellspring was negligent in failing to execute its courtesy officer program in a reasonable manner. The defendants argued that they did not owe Wright a duty to provide security and that, even if they did, that duty was not breached, and even if the duty was breached, their alleged negligence was not a proximate cause of the harm. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. A divided Court of Appeals affirmed. On a writ of certiorari, the sole question before the Supreme Court was whether the Court of Appeals erred in failing to apply section 323 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which provides:

“One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

  1. his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of harm, or

  2. the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.”

The Supreme Court stated that it is well settled in South Carolina that a landlord generally does not owe an affirmative duty to a tenant to provide security. An “affirmative acts” exception exists, however, where one assumes to act even though under no obligation to do so. Wright’s brief acknowledged that South Carolina case law is not clear as to how the “affirmative acts” exception differs from the “undertaking” exception of the Restatement. The Supreme Court found that Wright’s negligence cause of action invoked the undertaking exception and held that summary judgment should not have been granted. The Court stated that there are questions of fact that a jury must resolve to ascertain whether a duty of care arose in this case.

Justice Kittredge’s strongly worded dissent said that the majority took the common existence of an apartment complex’s security officer program and morphed that limited undertaking into a sweeping duty to protect tenants from unforeseen criminal acts of third parties. The dissent found particularly troubling a lack of proximate cause.

Dirt lawyers who represent owners or managers of apartment complexes should take a careful look at this case with their clients.

*Wright v. PRG Real Estate Management, Inc., South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27868 (March 20, 2019)

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