Landlord Not Liable For Shooting Death At Rental Property

by Rich Vetstein on September 16, 2015 · 1 comment

in Insurance, Landlord Tenant Law, Leasing, Massachusetts Real Estate Law, Premises Liability, Rental Housing, Safety

Copyright Josh Reynolds 2010

Landlord Sued for Wrongful Death After Assailant Shoots Four Guests At House Party, Killing One

A landlord’s worst nightmare is someone getting hurt, or worse, shot and killed on their rental property, and then getting sued for wrongful death. This was the situation facing a property owner in Dorchester in the recent case of Belizaire v. Furr, (Appeals Court 13-P-1908 Sept. 11, 2015). Fortunately for the landlord, the Court ultimately concluded that she was not legally responsible for the shooting because there was no reason to predict it would happen. Had the facts been different in this case, the landlord would not have been so luck to escape liability. After discussing this important case, I’ll talk about some ways that landlords can manage their risk.

Shooting at House Party, 5-7 Edson Street, Dorchester

The landlord owned a two-family in Dorchester which she rented out to several individuals. The landlord was fairly lax with written lease agreements, with some of the tenants having leases, but others not. On the night in question, the landlord’s son and one of the occupants (who were friends) hosted a party with a DJ, alcohol and dancing. Carl Belizaire attended the party as a guest. Late at night, an unknown assailant shot up the room, killing Belizaire and injuring three other guest. The assailant was never found or charged. There was no prior history of violence at the property.

Landlord Sued For Wrongful Death

Belizaire’s estate sued the landlord for wrongful death, alleging that she failed to keep the property safe. The Court first analyzed whether there was a tenancy or lease in place, because that would minimize the landlord’s liability and control over injuries occurring on rental property. The landlord’s failure to secure leases with the tenants at the property, particularly the tenant who threw the party, resulted in the court concluding that there was insufficient evidence to rule that there was a valid tenancy in place to shield the landlord from liability.

The Court, however, ultimately ruled that the landlord was not liable for the shooting because there was no evidence of prior shootings or similar violent incidents on the property. Although there was evidence of prior drug activity at the property, the court found this insufficient to support a finding of liability. There was no evidence of other large parties with uninvited guests similar to the one in question taking place on the property. Nor was there any evidence that the landlord was affiliated in any way with, or knowledgeable about, the assailant or any dispute that the assailant may have had with the victim. The evidence submitted suggests that the victim’s death was tied to events beyond the party at the rental property. As a general rule, a landowner does not owe a duty to take affirmative steps to protect against dangerous or unlawful acts of third persons. In certain exceptional circumstances, landlords may be liable for ignoring criminal activities that occur on their premises and were known or should have been known to them. That was not the case here.

Managing The Risks Of Property Ownership: Use Strong Leases and Set Up LLC’s to Hold Title

Many of my landlord clients often worry about liability issues at their rental property. They often ask me whether they can get sued over someone getting hurt on their rental property and what they can do to minimize their risk.

The landlord in this case made some catastrophic mistakes which, had the facts been different, could have resulted in a multi-million dollar liability. The first mistake she made was not securing written leases for all tenants and occupants at the rental property. The form lease that I have drafted contains a unique indemnification clause which would have help shield the landlord for liability for injuries caused by the tenants. The second major mistake made by the landlord was holding title to the rental property in her individual name, thereby exposing her personal assets to a lien or judgment. Although not always appropriate for every landlord, it’s a prudent idea to hold rental property in a limited liability company which would shield the landlord’s personal assets from liability. There is expense to set up the LLC and there is a $500 annual fee, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it relative to the risk of getting sued for wrongful death.

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngIf you are a rental property owner and would like advice concerning your leases or would like to discuss setting up an LLC, please contact me at rvetstein@vetsteinlawgroup.com or 508-620-5352. I would be happy to help you in any way.

  • johnH

    Interesting/scary case study, thanks for posting. I have always agreed in the past on the conventional wisdom around LLCs. Buth ow do you think about LLCs vs umbrella insurance? For eg: One rental in an LLC and one held in my name covered by an umbrella. Liability coverage from the umbrella is greater and cheaper than on the LLC’s individual policy, and the umbrella does not extend to the LLC. So lets say there is a claim and judgment on the llc rental in excess of coverage – major problem vs in the same scenario, the rental held personally will have the umbrella step in in excess of coverage

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