Can a Landlord Be Liable for a Tenant’s Crime if a Background Check Was Not Run on the Tenant?
Docket No.: A-2989-18T1
Decided and Approved for Publication June 17, 2020
Submitted by New Jersey Civil Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In a recent decision approved for publication, the Appellate Division considered whether a landlord was required to perform criminal background checks on tenants to promote the safety of other tenants.
In Campagna, the victim, Campagna, was a resident in defendant’s multi-unit property. Strong later became a resident in defendant’s property. It was found that Campagna and Strong developed a relationship of watching sports together. After a heated argument in Campagna’s room, Strong stabbed Campagna 90 times, killing him. Strong plead guilty of murder and is serving a 30 year sentence.
Campagna’s estate brought suit for wrongful death and negligence against defendant property owner arguing that the defendant owed a duty to Campagna and failed to conduct a background check on Strong.
Strong had previously been convicted of armed robbery. However, during Strong’s stay at defendant’s property, no evidence was presented of Strong behaving violently. Further, at the night of the murder, there was no evidence of forced entry into Campagna’s apartment. Several other tenants testified that Campagna and Strong spent time together.
The trial court dismissed the estate’s complaint against defendant on summary judgment, ruling that defendant had no notice of Strong’s propensity for violence thus owed no duty to Campagna, and the defendant was not required under any law of New Jersey to perform a background check on its tenants.
In a 52 page opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision. In its ruling the Appellate Division analyzed any possible statutory duty or common law duty that defendant may have had to perform a background check. Not only was the Appellate Division unable to find any law that required this, the court also ruled that even if there was such a law, that it could possibly have devasting public policy effects, such as denial of any criminal affordable housing and violations of privacy. The Appellate Division also affirmed that defendant had no notice that Strong would commit murder, and thus owed no duty to Campagna to take additional steps of protection. In fact, Strong became a social guest of Campagna, as Campagna must have invited Strong into his apartment since there were no signs of forced entry.
This case is very important for landlords and tenants alike. While there is no duty to perform background checks, a landlord may still perform them at his/her discretion. Also, while this scenario led to a finding of no liability on account of defendant, these situations are very fact sensitive. There are other cases in which landlords were aware of high crime areas and failed to take steps such as ensuring locks on doors, leading to them being liable to injuries or deaths to tenants.
If you or someone you know has been injured or killed by a third party while living in rented housing, you need to make sure you contact a personal injury attorney with knowledge of ownership and control in relationship to liability. Failing to consider these issues could result in your case be dismissed permanently. Do not hesitate to contact Hark & Hark today to discuss your personal injury.
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