Botham Jean was shot and killed in his own apartment by Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in 2018.
In September 2020, Jean’s family filed a lawsuit against the apartment complex for wrongful death, following Guyger’s murder conviction. The wrongful death lawsuit is based on a claim that Jean’s door had been broken and wasn’t fixed by the apartment complex, Southside Flats.
In Guyger’s murder trial, she testified that the reason she shot Jean was that she believed she was in her own apartment, which was one floor below. But Jean’s family says that if the door had been fixed, Guyger wouldn’t have been able to enter Jean’s apartment and he wouldn’t have been killed.
The lawsuit claims that:
“Botham’s death occurred as a direct result of the faulty poorly maintained door and locking mechanism and the confusion with the layout of the Southside Flats.”
There are several questions of fact that will need to be determined by a jury in this case — such as reports that Guyger’s key worked in the wrong door, that other residents had accidentally entered wrong apartments, and that residents had faulty key fobs.
This case will take some time to play out in the courts, but it does raise more general questions about a Texas apartment complex or landlord’s liability for an injury or death resulting from a security breach.
Can an apartment complex be liable for negligent security?
In order to make a claim for negligence for any personal injury, these 4 elements must be present:
- The defendant had a duty of care to the plaintiff.
- The defendant breached the duty of care.
- The breach caused the plaintiff’s injury.
- The injury led to a monetary loss, or financial costs to the plaintiff.
The apartment complex owner (landlord) owes a duty of care to tenants and visitors. That means they’re responsible for taking reasonable measures to protect residents and visitors from injury caused by a third party.
Reasonableness will depend on the facts of the case. The question that a judge or jury considers in any negligence case is:
What would a reasonable person do in this situation?
Of course, what’s reasonable for 1 person isn’t necessarily the same as what’s reasonable for someone else. But the court aims to apply an objective test for reasonableness based on the facts of a given case.
With respect to the reasonableness of safety measures in an apartment complex or landlord liability, the court might consider factors that include:
- Was the crime foreseeable because security measures were inadequate or nonexistent?
- Was there a specific safety measure that was broken or not working at the time of the injury?
- Did the apartment complex violate any state or local codes?
- Did the owner perform routine maintenance on safety equipment?
- Was there adequate lighting in hallways, stairwells, parking lots, or other common areas?
- Was there a specific threat about which the owner should’ve warned residents?
- Was there a history of criminal activity near or in the apartment complex?
- Had the owner upgraded or added security because of other incidents in or near the complex?
- Were there planned security measures that had been delayed or canceled for financial reasons?
- Did the owner make an effort to assess the potential for criminal activity?
- Did the owner have the financial means to make security updates?
- Are there maintenance records for security equipment like surveillance cameras, alarms, gates, locks, windows, etc.?
There will be many other questions to consider based on the specifics of the injury, the apartment complex, and local laws.
Being injured in your apartment complex doesn’t automatically mean the owner or manager was negligent. To make a successful claim for negligence, you need to prove that they failed to reasonably protect you from a foreseeable injury.
Criminal liability and civil personal injury lawsuits
If your injury is the result of a crime (such as an assault), there will be 2 separate legal actions.
|Criminal legal action
|Personal injury lawsuits
|No monetary damages recoverable for the victim
|Can recover monetary damages for injuries
|The perpetrator can be arrested and charged by law enforcement, and their charges will be handled in the criminal legal system.
A civilian can’t charge someone with a crime, but you can report the crime to police and they would handle it.
|As a victim, you might be called upon to make a statement or testify at trial against a criminal defendant. However, there’s no financial recovery for a victim in a criminal case.
If the person is convicted, the court would sentence them accordingly.
If your injury cost you money for medical expenses or other losses, you can file a personal injury lawsuit. In Texas, you can file a personal injury claim against your attacker for assault and battery and recover costs associated with the injury.
You can also file a claim against the apartment complex owner if they were negligent by failing to protect you under the reasonableness standard. This would also be a personal injury lawsuit and you can recover monetary damages.
Texas personal injury lawsuit statute of limitations
The statute of limitations is the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit. In Texas, you have 2 years from the date of the injury in which to file a claim.
The statute of limitations is also 2 years in a Texas wrongful death lawsuit.
What is a landlord’s obligation to keep you safe in your apartment complex?
Texas law doesn’t require a landlord to protect a tenant or resident from a crime. However, negligent security is a cause of action in personal injury law and you might be able to hold your landlord responsible for your injuries because of criminal activity.
These are examples of when you might be entitled to recover compensation for a crime committed against you in a Texas apartment complex:
- Prior crimes have occurred and there is foreseeable harm. If there have been several crimes in a short period of time, the landlord might be liable for future crimes if they didn’t establish appropriate security measures.
The Texas Supreme Court has relied on these factors with respect to the foreseeability of injury from a crime:
- Previous criminal activity on or near the property
- Time period (how recent the crime was)
- Frequency of criminal activity
- Similarity of previous criminal activity and the cause of the injury
- Whether the landlord should’ve been aware of previous criminal activity (by news media publicity or by other means)
- Negligent hiring. A landlord is required to background-check every prospective employee. If they hire a person with a history of violent crime and that person commits a crime against you within the apartment complex, you could sue the landlord for your related injuries.
- Inadequate security. A landlord or complex owner isn’t required to have any specific security equipment or measures in place. However, if they’ve guaranteed certain security measures and those measures don’t work or are broken, they are failing to maintain their agreement. If a tenant has provided notice to management that there are issues and management fails to address them with proper security, they can be held liable for your injuries.
How to prove negligence for a security breach injury in your apartment complex
These are complicated claims, primarily because you’re holding 1 party (the apartment complex owner) responsible for the actions of another party (the person who committed the crime).
If you choose to file a claim that your apartment complex breached its duty with respect to keeping you safe, your attorney will likely rely on the following evidence:
- Police reports
- Witness interviews
- Surveillance camera footage or photos
- News reports
- Social media posts
If you’ve experienced an injury from a security breach in your apartment complex, or if you’ve lost a loved one, you do have legal options to recover your costs. Contact an experienced personal injury lawyer near you for help.