TORTS: WRONGFUL DEATH: NEGLIGENCE: PREMISES LIABILITY: FAILURE TO PROVIDE SECURITY: CIVIL PROCEDURE: DIRECTED VERDICT: LACK OF FORCED ENTRY INTO VICTIMS’ APARTMENT DID NOT REFUTE CAUSATION AS MATTER OF LAW

Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, ___ So. 3d ___, 40 Fla. L. Weekly S85 (Fla. February 12, 2015)

The victims were shot to death in their apartment by an unknown assailant, but there were no signs of forced entry. The owner of the apartment complex, “a national company owning approximately 100 properties,” was allegedly negligent for “failing to: (1) maintain the front gate, (2) have adequate security; (3) prevent dangerous persons from gaining access to the premises; and (4) protect and warn residents of dangerous conditions and criminal acts.” The trial court denied the defendant’s motion for directed verdict, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the plaintiff failed to prove causation because of the inability to establish how the assailants gained entry into the apartment. The Florida Supreme Court quashed the Fourth District’s decision. During the three year period before the murders, twenty crimes were committed at the apartment complex; namely, one armed robbery of a tenant while walking from her car to her apartment, one strong-armed robbery of a pizza delivery man, one domestic violence forced entry, nine car thefts, one attempted car theft, one criminal mischief, one burglary of a dwelling, and five burglaries. During the four month period before the murders, the entry gate to the complex was inoperative, but no violent crimes occurred on the property during that period. The tenant who was robbed while walking from her car to her apartment thought that the assailant followed her into the apartment complex. Based on this evidence, the court held that a question of fact for the jury was presented whether a foreseeable danger to residents existed because the defendant failed to prevent criminals from entering onto the premises. “A reasonable jury could have determined that [the defendant’s] failure to maintain the security gate and failure to have the courtesy officer visible probably allowed the assailant(s) to get to the decedents’ door more easily without being detected . . . . Therefore, the lack of forced entry . . . [was] not dispositive of the causation issue.”

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