The Maryland Court of Special Appeals began 2021 with an important decision for landlords.  In Davis v. Regency Lane, LLC, 349 Md. App. 187 (2021), the plaintiffs – the families of a tenant and a guest of a tenant, both victims of a tragic mass shooting of six people in the parking lot of an apartment complex at 2:45 a.m. that left 3 dead – sued the landlord for not providing adequate security. The trial court granted the landlord’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed. The decision is an important addition to Maryland’s long-established law of premises liability.

The Basics Of Premises Liability: Duty, Breach, And Proximate Cause

“A landlord is not the insurer of its tenants,” and therefore, is not held responsible for every injury incurred by a tenant. Rhaney v. University of Maryland Eastern Shore, 388 Md. 585, 599 (2005). However, a landlord owes a duty to tenants to eliminate any “dangerous condition” that enhances the likelihood that an injury will occur. The rule is best illustrated in Hemmings v. Pelham Wood Ltd. Liab. Ltd. P’ship, 375 Md. 522 (2003). A tenant, shot in his apartment by an intruder who entered through a defective sliding glass door, produced evidence that the landlord was aware of five similar instances over the previous two years in which an intruder entered other apartments through the same defective glass door. The defective sliding glass door that enhanced the likelihood of the shooting was considered a “dangerous condition.” The landlord who knew about the broken door and the propensity of intruders to exploit the vulnerability had a duty to fix it, and by failing to do so he breached the duty owed to the tenant.

But a duty and breach alone does not establish a cause of action; proximate cause also must be shown. In the premises liability context, to show proximate cause a plaintiff must prove that the breach of duty actually enhanced the likelihood of the particular injury that occurred. If the plaintiff shows that the door was broken, but the intruder entered through the window, there was a duty and a breach, but the claim of negligence against the landlord fails for lack of proximate cause.

Proximate Cause Requires A “Viable Theory Of Causation”

Proximate cause is ordinarily a question of fact for a jury to decide. However, if a plaintiff fails to provide a “viable theory of causation,” the claim will not survive a motion for summary judgment.  In Davis, the plaintiffs produced no witnesses of the shooting and there was no evidence of the identity of the shooter or shooters, including whether they were trespassers or tenants. There was also no evidence as to whether the gate to the parking lot was open or closed, broken or operational, or whether the shooter(s) even entered through the gate. As the events of the night remain to this day a mystery, no evidence could support that extra security would have made a difference. As the Court said, “proof of causation cannot be based on mere speculation.” Without a “viable theory of causation” the Court affirmed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of Regency Lane, LLC.

Premises Liability For A Dangerous Condition

A “dangerous condition” that enhances the likelihood of injury must be a physical condition, like the defective sliding glass door in Hemmings, not an ephemeral environmental condition. A plaintiff cannot establish the existence of a “dangerous condition” simply by pointing to a spike in crime on or around the premises. The plaintiffs in Davis needed to show that there was a tangible and identifiable defective feature of the property that was under the landlord’s control and of which the landlord was aware, like a broken gate or security camera.  As the Court of Appeals made clear in Rhaney and Hemmings, “crime” in the abstract, is not a “dangerous condition.” 

Additionally, the mere existence of a dangerous condition is not sufficient to survive summary judgment. The plaintiff must also provide evidence that the landlord’s act or omission in creating or failing to eliminate the dangerous condition was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

Seek Legal Assistance For Premises Liability Issues With Maryland Attorneys At Eccleston & Wolf

Premises liability can be confusing even for judges.  As crime rates rise, landlords and property owners need to be up-to-date on the latest developments in premises liability law.  The attorneys at Eccleston & Wolf have a deep understanding of the law from extensive experience defending and advising landlords and property owners in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.  If you or someone you know is seeking legal assistance, consider utilizing the many resources that our qualified team at Eccleston & Wolf has to offer. To learn how our team can assist you, and to stay up-to-date on developments in Maryland law, contact our office today.