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Security: protecting yourself from liability.

As violent crimes in society have increased, a new concern has arisen for owners, landlords and management companies of apartment buildings - the safety of occupants and the "crime liability," if something should go wrong.

While burglarizing an apartment, a criminal may assault, rape or murder a tenant. Significantly, courts in the United States have become increasingly willing to impose liability on owners and management for injuries suffered on the premises by tenants from third-party criminal activity. Although they have not been required to be the insurer of tenant safety, if the criminal activity has been deemed foreseeable, they have been under a duty to take reasonable measures to protect tenants from harm. The same holds true for injuries suffered by tenants due to the criminal acts of employees, such as maintenance personnel or guards.

Apartment buildings present unique opportunities for criminals. Easily-fenced consumer goods, such as jewelry, televisions and stereo equipment, plus lax security in many apartment buildings make them desirable burglary targets. Other factors making apartments a prime target include: unfiarity of residents with neighbors because of the steady turnover rate; many apartments are empty during the day while tenants are at work; burglars can hide in various places in apartment buildings such as hallways, stairways, and balconies; security is thought to be adequately provided in security-patrolled complexes or those having doormen; and tenants do not want to invest in installation of security equipment.

Facing these risks, it is important for owners/management to become more aware of the susceptibility of apartment buildings to criminal activity, the details of crime liability, and the security measures intended to minimize risks and losses. Such concerns are also important to those involved with condominium and cooperative buildings, although the differences in ownership among the properties will also render differences in liability issues for third-party criminal acts.

It is important to note, however, that the courts are predisposed not to penalize businesses that have taken attirmative steps to protect tenants, as opposed to those who have clearly failed in their obligations. Owners and management, therefore, must take all reasonable security precautions necessary to protect tenants from crime, in order to protect themselves against inadequate security lawsuits.

Preventing burglaries in apartment buildings often is simply a matter of access control - eliminating all means of entry available to the intruder reduces the opportunity for burglary. Appropriately, measures intended to reduce the opportunity for burglary, such as lighting, locks and access control, are also effective in protecting tenants from more serious crimes. Unfortunately, crime prevention is never that simple. Even with the best safety and security program, it is often the tenants and landlords themselves who unwittingly create the opportunity for crime.

The key to developing a sound security program is to identify the security exposures through a survey and then take the appropriate steps to address major concerns. Common considerations should include Neighborhood Crime, Management Considerations, Security for Public Access and Common Areas, Security for Rental Units, Locks and Key Control and Guard Services.

Since the surrounding area of any building plays an important role in the susceptibility for criminal activity, an accurate assessment of Neighborhood Crime is vital to planning sound security. This should include the type of community and crime rate, as well as police practices and neighborhood crime watch programs.

Management Considerations must include communication programs with tenants regarding safety and security policies. Does the policy include background checks on employees? Open dialogue with tenants could provide both management and tenants with vital information regarding crime and security that may be important in addressing key issues.

Security for Public Access and Common Areas must involve external, as well as internal considerations, including parking areas, fencing, lighting, lobbies, maintenance programs, and even the presence of vagrants in the area. Accessibility to the building is also important, and management needs to consider the existence or necessity of guards and closed circuit television systems. An evaluation must also include windows and doors, types of locks and hinges, and the reliability to keep out intruders.

The Security for Rental Units themselves must consider lighting (especially hallways) and access. Determine if all doors are in good condition and secure, and of solid core construction with no evidence of prior forced-entry attempts. Of course, burglar alarms and the maintenance of such systems are also important.

When considering programs that involve Locks and Key Control, this should include systems for controlling access keys, master key and record programs, and any practices that limit key duplication. If management provides Guard Services, surveys must consider if guards are employed by or contracted for their patrolling procedures, if they are armed, types of training programs, and reasons for cutbacks, if any. If contract guards are used, do the firms have adequate liability insurance and does the contract have an indemnification and hold-harmless agreement?

Owners, landlords and management companies of apartment buildings must comply with the law's requirements that reasonable care be exercised on matters affecting the safety and security of tenants. Many of these suggestions go well beyond customary practices in the apartment industry and are above ordinary standards of care. However, if owners/managers instituted the security practices suggested here, they will have set up a security program that is effective in protecting tenants from third-party crimes and also will form the basis for a defense in the event of litigation.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Residential Properties; advice for building owners, landlords and apartment building management firms; includes related article on security liability
Author:Apo, Allan M.
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 17, 1993
Previous Article:Dealing with delinquencies in recessionary times.
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