Is a Landlord Required to Foresee a Targeted Attack….Maybe?

Door Lock

In Scurry v. NYCHA and Murphy v. NYCHA, the Court of Appeals considered the duty of an owner—NYCHA—where an injured party was injured by a third party’s criminal attack. The Court found general negligence principles apply to cases in which a tenant injured by a third party’s criminal attack, including the principle that a defendant’s negligence qualifies as a proximate cause where it is a substantial cause of the events which produced the injury. The Court cited to its prior ruling in Burgos v Aqueduct Realty Corp., 92 NY2d 544, 551 (1998) where it held, there is “no need … to create a special rule for premises security cases, since the burden regularly placed on plaintiffs to establish proximate cause in negligence cases strikes the desired balance” between “a tenant’s ability to recover for an injury caused by the landlord’s negligence against a landlord’s ability to avoid liability when its conduct did not cause any injury.”

The assailants in Scurry and Murphy were intruders onto the premises, entered their buildings through exterior doors that, for the purpose of these appeals, the Court assumed did not have functioning locks. In a footnote, the Court noted that Murphy, the Supreme Court observed that the door was not functioning properly at the time of the occurrence; in Scurry, Supreme Court held that there was an issue of fact as to “whether NYCHA had fulfilled [its] duty to provide a safe environment at the Cypress Hills Houses”; and at oral argument, counsel for NYCHA conceded the existence of an issue of fact as to the lock’s operability.

The facts in each case were tragic and disturbing. An intruder murdered Ms. Crushshon in the hallway of her building by immolating her; an intruder murdered Ms. Murphy by shooting her at point-blank range as she begged for her life.

In both cases, plaintiffs sued NYCHA for negligence, and NYCHA admitted that it had a duty to provide a locking exterior door. In both cases, NYCHA claimed entitlement to summary judgment on the theory that, because the assailants did not commit crimes of opportunity but instead had “targeted” their victims, NYCHA’s negligence was not a proximate cause of the deaths.

In an opinion penned by Chief Judge Wilson, the Court disagreed with NYCHA and held that while the sophisticated nature of an attack may in some cases be relevant to the proximate cause analysis, the fact that an attack was “targeted” did not automatically sever the causal chain between a landlord’s negligence and a plaintiff’s injuries as a matter of law.

After summarizing the facts of the cases, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its prior holdings with respect to negligent-security cases such as Burgos. The Court held, owners owe a common-law duty to take minimal precautions to protect tenants from foreseeable harm, including a third party’s foreseeable criminal conduct that duty and that “(a) failure to supply minimal security breaches” that duty. In Murphy, Supreme Court noted that the door’s lock was not functioning. In Scurry, Supreme Court held, and NYCHA concedes for the purpose of this appeal, that there was an issue of fact as to “whether NYCHA had fulfilled [its] duty to provide a safe environment at the Cypress Hills Houses.” Therefore, the Court ruled, “in both cases, plaintiffs at a minimum demonstrated questions of fact as to breach.”

The Court noted, the “primary issue” on appeal was whether NYCHA was entitled to summary judgment on the issue of proximate cause. NYCHA argued that the fact that the attacks against the victims were “targeted,” it could not be liable because landlords did not owe a “duty to outwit or outthink those who are determined to overcome” the “minimal steps a landowner is required to take to secure premises.” According to NYCHA, if a landlord offers evidence that an attack is “targeted,” that landlord has demonstrated that the assailant would have gained access to the building even if the door had been properly secured. To successfully oppose a motion for summary judgment, plaintiff must rebut that demonstration by showing that a locked door would have in fact deterred the assailant.

The Court disagreed, holding that NYCHA’s “reasoning mistakes a patently factual determination—whether a locked door would have prevented an attack—for a legal one—i.e , that an attacker’s intent is a superseding cause as a matter of law.” The Court then cited to well-settled law concerning foreseeability and causation in denying the motions.

Applying these well-settled legal rulings to the facts, the Court held, “the risk created by the nonfunctioning door locks—that intruders would gain access to the building and harm residents—is exactly the “risk that came to fruition.” According to the Court, “(i)t was not the trial court’s role, on summary judgment, to assess the factbound question of whether the intruders in Scurry or Murphy would have persevered in their attacks had the doors been securely locked.”

But the Court did acknowledge, “(t)his is not to say that the sophistication and planning of an attack is irrelevant to the factfinder’s determination of proximate cause, or even that it could never rise to such a degree that it would sever the proximate causal link as a matter of law.” But on the facts in Scurry and Murphy, the Court held that NYCHA did satisfy its burden.

While the rulings are disappointing, the Court’s decisions are very fact-driven. The Court did not automatically dismiss the defense of “targeted attacks.”