Davenport v. D.M. Rental Properties, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 11-07-1167, 12 pp.) (Linda Stephens, J.) Appealed from Gaston County Superior Court. (Mark E. Klass, J.) N.C. App. Click here for the full-text opinion.
Holding: Although a landowner has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect tenants from foreseeable third-party criminal acts, we have never extended that duty to include the duty to evict a tenant. In any event, the attack by one tenant on another in this case was not foreseeable, given the previously cordial nature of their relationship.
We affirm summary judgment for the defendant-landlords.
At the defendant-landlords’ mobile home park, tenant Tony Herrin had been drinking heavily on July 19, 2009. After trying to wrest a bicycle away from plaintiff’s wife, Herrin fell into a culvert and flew into a rage.
Herrin threatened plaintiff with a knife; after plaintiff pushed him, Herrin punched plaintiff in the jaw. Plaintiff went inside to call the police.
Shortly thereafter, plaintiff and his wife saw Herrin swinging a shovel at their pets. Plaintiff and his wife fought Herrin with a shovel and rake until Herrin discovered he was bleeding.
Herrin shouted, “I’m  burning y’all!” He retrieved a container of gasoline from his property, ran at plaintiff with the gasoline and a lighter, and set plaintiff on fire. Plaintiff sustained severe burns.
Even if plaintiff had shown that an assault on a tenant was foreseeable, defendants did not breach their duty to exercise reasonable care to protect tenants from foreseeable third-party criminal acts.
The safety measures that plaintiff alleges defendants negligently failed to provide – cameras, guards, fences, signs – would not have prevented Herrin’s attack on plaintiff. The evidence of Herrin’s intoxication and rage shows that he would not have been deterred by any reasonable safety measures on defendants’ property.
Defendants cannot be held liable for Herrin’s assault based on an alleged failure to make the property safe.
Even though G.S. §§ 42-59 et seq. provides for the expedited eviction of criminals by landlords, our statutes do not impose on landlords any duty to screen potential tenants, and they certainly do not impose any liability for a failure to do so.
Further, a landlord cannot reasonably be expected to predict from a criminal record whether one tenant poses a threat to another. To impose liability in such a case would induce landlords to decline housing to those with a criminal record. The resulting unstable living conditions or homelessness might increase the chances of recidivism to the detriment of public safety.
Defendants cannot be held liable for their allegedly negligent leasing of property to Herrin.
Failure to Evict
Although we have recognized a landowner’s duty to exercise reasonable care to protect tenants from foreseeable third-party criminal acts, we have never recognized as included in that duty to protect the duty to evict a tenant. We decline to do so in this case.
Presuming that the duty to evict is an extension of a general landowner’s duty to protect those lawfully on his property from foreseeable third-party criminal acts, foreseeability of a future criminal act by the third-party tenant – as shown by evidence of relevant prior criminal acts by the third-party tenant on the premises — would logically be the test for determining the existence of the duty.
The evidence establishes that Herrin and plaintiff’s relationship was at least cordial prior to the assault and that the sudden descent into hostility and violence was due entirely to Herrin’s intoxication and his run-in with Davenport’s wife. A landlord cannot reasonably be expected to control the interpersonal relationships of tenants. Imposing liability on defendants under these circumstances would place an unreasonable burden on landlords.
Finally, there is no evidence that Herrin’s lease required defendants to evict him.