Landlord liability for criminal acts

Owning and renting out property comes with more responsibility than just ensuring that the building is functioning and in good repair. As a landlord you also have to guarantee a certain degree of safety for the tenants. There is a growing trend in the law where landlords can be held liable for criminal acts that take place on their property. Let’s take a look at this emerging trend and what a landlord can do to protect his tenants and to protect his property.

The law involving landlord liability for criminal acts

Generally a landlord can be held liable for criminal acts that occur on his property if it happens in the common areas of the property and the risk of crime in those areas was foreseeable. The law places a duty upon the landlord to protect those areas from crime. This does not mean that the landlord must guarantee safety, such a standard would be impossible to meet, but the landlord must take reasonable steps to protect those areas, especially if there is a defect in them that could invite or lead to crime.

To win a case the tenant/plaintiff must generally show that:

  1. The landlord knew of a defect in the common area
  2. The landlord had control over the defect and;
  3. The defect foreseeably increased the risk of criminal acts


Plaintiffs are most successful when the defect relates to a criminal’s means of gaining access to common areas. Here are a few examples:

  • Broken locks on doors
  • Missing passkeys
  • Easily accessible outside fire escapes
  • Unsecure windows
  • Inadequate lighting
  • Inadequate guest/admission procedures

Where this rule is applied

This rule is applied to landlords of both residential and commercial properties. In some states shopping center landlords have been involved in litigation over crimes committed in parking lots around the shopping center.

What a landlord can do to protect his tenants and protect from liability

Most often plaintiffs win these cases when there has been a pattern of criminal acts around the areas and the landlord knew about such activity or had reason to know about it. A landlord can take the following steps to ensure safety and protect from liability:

  • Fix any defects that could give criminals access to common areas: broken locks, broken windows, an easily accessible fire escape.
  • Take extra security measures around your property: ensure good lighting, ensure all of your security measures are working and running effectively.
  • Report criminal activity: make it your business to know if criminal acts are occurring on your premises and around them, and if it is, report that activity to the police.
  • Respond to complaints: if your tenants complain about criminal acts, respond to them and notify the police if necessary.
  • Keep a record: record all the actions that you took to ensure safety and prevent and report criminal activity.


There is a growing trend in the law where landlords are being held liable for criminal acts that occur on their premises. Generally a plaintiff can win these cases if they show 1) A defect in the common area, 2) the area is subject to the landlord’s control and 3) the defect subjected the tenant to an increased risk of foreseeable harm. A landlord does not have to prevent all criminal acts, but he must take reasonable steps to keep those areas safe and fix defects. Thus a landlord should fix broken windows, lock doors and report all criminal activity. This law can vary from state to state. To ensure you are doing all you can to protect your tenants and yourself contact a local attorney.[1]

[1] Barlow Burke and Joseph Snoe, Examples and Explanations: Property 335-337 (3rd Ed. 2008)