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Scott v. Watson - 278 Md. 160, 359 A.2d 548 (1976)

Rule:

A landlord who has set aside areas for the use of his tenants in common owes them the duty of reasonable and ordinary care to keep the premises safe. In other words, mere ownership of buildings does not render the owner liable for injuries sustained by tenants since the landlord is not an insurer of such persons. Rather, where a landlord leases separate portions of a property to different tenants and reserves under his control halls, stairways, and other portions of the property used in common by all tenants, he is only obliged to use reasonable diligence and ordinary care to keep the portion retained under his control in reasonably safe condition. This rule encompasses within its general ambit injuries sustained by tenants as a result of criminal acts committed by others in the common areas within the landlord's control.

Facts:

On the evening of July 12-13, 1973, plaintiff's decedent, James Aubrey Scott, Jr., a tenant at Sutton Place Apartments ("Sutton"), was killed by the blast of a shotgun within several yards of his automobile in the apartment's underground parking garage. Although there was a guard on Sutton's premises at the time of the murder, the guard was unaware of the crime, and Scott's body was in fact discovered by a tenant approximately one and one-half hours after the crime was committed. Thereafter, plaintiff Evelyn Ann Scott, as a surviving child of the decedent and as personal representative of the decedent's estate, brought a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland against defendants E. John Watson and the other owners of Sutton. Scott alleged that defendants had breached a duty owed to the decedent as one of their tenants to protect him from criminal acts of third parties committed in common areas within their control. Scott further alleged that the breach of duty proximately caused the decedent's death. Pursuant to Code (1974) Courts Art., § 12-601 et seq., the district court certified three questions of law to be answered by the Supreme Court of Maryland.

Issue:

  1. Did Maryland law impose upon the landlord of an urban apartment complex a duty to tenants to protect them from the criminal acts of third parties committed in common areas within the landlord's control and, if so, what is the extent of such duty?
  2. If no such duty existed generally, would such a duty be imposed if the landlord has knowledge of increasing criminal activity on the premises or in the immediate neighborhood?
  3. Would such a duty be imposed upon a landlord if such landlord has undertaken specific measures to protect his tenants from the criminal acts of third parties?

Answer:

1) No; 2) Yes; 3) Yes.

Conclusion:

In response to the questions certified by the federal district court, the Supreme Court of Maryland responded: (1) there was no special duty imposed upon the landlord to protect his tenants against crimes perpetrated by third parties on the landlord's premises. The landlord was only required to exercise reasonable care for the tenant's safety, and traditional negligence principles regarding causation would determine liability. (2) A duty was imposed upon the landlord to protect his tenants from criminal acts of third parties where the landlord had knowledge of increasing criminal activity on the premises, or in the immediate neighborhood. Further, the duty of a landlord to exercise reasonable care for the safety of his tenants in common in areas under the landlord's control was sufficiently flexible to be applied to cases involving criminal activity without making the landlord an insurer of his tenant's safety. The court observed that the facts in the certification order were determinative of whether criminal activity existed in Sutton's common areas rendering their use unsafe and whether there was a breach of defendants' duty of reasonable and ordinary care to keep the premises safe. (3) Even if there was no duty, the improper performance of voluntary acts undertaken by the landlord to protect his tenants from the criminal acts of third parties could, in particular circumstances, constitute a breach of duty.

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