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Not Everything is a Landlord's Fault
by Ron Davis
A shooting at a California shopping center has helped define the legal responsibility of tenant and landlord in taking preventive measures against crime.
The shooting occurred at a bar located in a shopping center just south of Santa Rosa. A gunman, irate over his ejection twice from the bar in the same evening, drew a pistol and killed the bar operator’s brother and wounded another of his brothers as well as a customer. A resulting lawsuit charged the bar operator and the shopping center owner with negligence, claiming that they failed to protect customers from a foreseeable crime.
The scene of the shooting was a one-story stand-alone building with an abutting area for the bar’s customers to park. The bar’s staff maintained that parking area, and a small wagon regularly parked just outside the front door for the sale of tacos and other food items to bar patrons.
The owner of the shopping center apparently never inspected the bar premises and although he had “heard of fights” there, he never talked with the bar operator about security. Nor had the center’s owner asked about actions taken to control fights or warned that he would cancel the bar’s lease if he heard about other violent activities.
During the four years the bar operator leased the premises, his employees called police at least three times because of fights, but none involved guns until the shooting of the three men. In that incident, the gunman, after being ejected initially, later returned with a plate of tacos from the wagon outside and asked for a beer. The bar operator refused him service and ordered him to leave. The gunman then told the bar operator, “You’re going to pay for this.” He then backed out the door, pulled his pistol and fired back into the bar, hitting the three men inside.
A California court, in its ruling, affirmed a lower-court decision in favor of the shopping center owner. Explained the judges, “First, as to actual knowledge of a dangerous condition on the property, at most the landlord had ‘heard of’ fights at the bar on a couple of occasions. Second, assuming that the landlord had actual awareness of prior fights on the premises and such fights as such amounted to a dangerous condition, this condition had nothing to do with the land itself. Rather, it had to do with the manner in which the proprietor of the bar ran his business. The landlord was just that—a landlord—not a manager or supervisor of the bar. The landlord’s connection to the premises and the shooting was remote, at best. His moral blame was tenuous, especially as compared with the bar operator.”
The court refused, however, to absolve the bar operator of blame for the shooting and returned the lawsuit against him for a trial by jury. (Mata v. Mata, 130 Cal.Rptr.2d 141 [Cal.App. 1 Dist. 203])
Decision: March 2003
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