E-Alert Case Updates
Maryland Court of Special Appeals Holds that Tenant has no Duty to Protect Landlord’s Property against Unforeseeable Criminal Acts of Third Parties.
Evergreen Associates, LLC v. Crawford
In Evergreen Associates, LLC v. Crawford, Maryland’s intermediate appellate court held that a tenant owed no common law duty to his landlord to protect a rented property against the unforeseeable criminal acts of a third party. Writing for the Court, Judge Woodward reasoned that a tenant does not owe his or her landlord a duty to safeguard against the criminal acts of third parties, unless there is some form of special relationship. The Court found that the landlord-tenant relationship, alone, will not serve to create a tenant’s duty of care. Furthermore, if such a duty could be found to exist, it could be no broader than the landlord’s duty to safeguard against foreseeable dangerous conditions.
Evergreen Associates, LLC (“Evergreen”) owned a building in Frostburg, Maryland. Evergreen leased the first floor and part of the basement of its property to Joseph Crawford, where Mr. Crawford ran his restaurant “Gianni’s Pizza.” While the restaurant had one entrance on the first floor for employees, there was a basement door for employees that could only be locked or unlocked by using a key from outside the building. Section 5 of the commercial lease agreement between Evergreen and Mr. Crawford required Mr. Crawford, “at the expiration of the Term or at the sooner termination thereof by forfeiture or otherwise, [to] deliver up the Premises in the same good order and condition as it was at the beginning of the tenancy.” Evergreen Associates, LLC v. Crawford, No. 119, slip op. at 2 (Md. App. Sept. 10, 2013) (quoting the commercial lease agreement). On May 26, 2009, the rental property caught fire, and it was found that the fire originated in the basement of the building.
Shortly after the fire, Evergreen filed a Complaint in the Circuit Court for Allegany County. Evergreen claimed that the fire was caused by an unknown third party who was able to enter the property through the basement door. Alleging one (1) count of negligence, Evergreen asserted that Mr. Crawford breached a legal duty owed to Evergreen by apparently either leaving the basement door unlocked, or failing to require some previous employee to return his or her keys to the building. Evergreen later amended its Complaint to include one (1) count of breach of contract, alleging that Mr. Crawford breached Section 5 of the commercial lease agreement in failing to deliver the property in the same condition as which it had been leased. In response, Mr. Crawford filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and argued that he had no legal duty of care to protect Evergreen’s property against the criminal activities of third parties. The Circuit Court agreed, and granted Mr. Crawford’s motion as to Evergreen’s claims of negligence and breach of contract. Evergreen appealed to the Court of Special Appeals.
The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Mr. Crawford. In reaching its decision, the Court first examined Evergreen’s claim of negligence. Looking to RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 315, the Court found that there is no duty to control the conduct of third person absent a “special relationship.” The Court held that the landlord-tenant relationship, without more, does not constitute such a special relationship. Assuming, however, that a tenant did have a duty to his or her landlord, the Court found that such a duty could be no broader than the landlord’s duty to remedy known and foreseeable dangerous conditions. In this case, because Evergreen’s property had no history of vandalism or criminal activity, arson was not a foreseeable harm against which Mr. Crawford could protect. Therefore, Mr. Crawford could not be found negligent as a matter of law.
The Court similarly found that Evergreen could not recover under breach of contract. Though Section 5 of the lease required Mr. Crawford to return the property in the same condition as which it was leased, MD. CODE ANN., REAL PROP. § 8-113 dictates that such clauses will not force a tenant to “pay for any building destroyed by fire . . . without negligence or fault on the tenant’s part.” Holding the statute’s use of the term “negligence” to be coterminous with that of common law negligence, the Court found that Mr. Crawford could not be found liable for breach of Section 5 because he was not negligent. Hence, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court for Allegany County.
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