Security Cameras, Electronic Locks, and Security Officers - Are Condominium Associations Liable to Unit Owners for the Criminal Assaults of Third-Parties?

For many condominiums, a secure and safe premises is the polar opposite of a liability: it is a feature and selling point to bring new residents into the community and increase the property value of individual units. From the perspective of condominium association budgets, most condominium association boards can easily defend, to residents, reasonable expenses on security in the common elements. Most if not all residents understand the need for security measures on the premises whether that expense includes merely exterior lighting in parking lots or a whole security suite of protections from video cameras and swipe-card locks to gates and guards. 

Aside from the expenses that come with community security measures, are there any other downsides to the implementation of a security plan for the common elements? One recent opinion issued by Judge Daniel Fiore sitting for the Circuit of Arlington County in a recent case styled Letellier v. The Atrium Unit Owners Association found that a condominium association’s provision of security created a duty of care to protect unit owners from criminal assaults on the premises. 

Notably, the court did not say that condominium associations always have a duty to protect their unit owners from criminal assaults. The judge did say that the circumstances surrounding the case in his courtroom made the association liable for the occurrence of such criminal assaults. While Judge Fiore’s opinion should not deter condominium unit owners’ associations from maintaining or installing security systems, it provides a cautionary tale on the importance of properly maintaining and monitoring those security systems. 

The Ordinary Rule in Virginia – Very Limited Liability for the Criminal Assaults of Third-Parties

Unlike many states, Virginia does not impose a general duty on property owners to protect others from injury caused by the criminal assaults of third-parties. In most cases, the owner of property merely owes a duty to protect certain types of people to which the property owner has a legally-significant “special relationship,”, from criminal assaults. 

For example, the owner and employees of a retail store owe a duty to the store’s customers to take reasonable action to protect customers from criminal assaults the store’s employees know are occurring or are about to occur. Landlords owe a similar duty to their tenants to take reasonable steps to protect their tenants from criminal assaults that are occurring or that the landlord should know are about to occur. Neither store owners nor landlords would be held legally liable for a criminal assault that was, like most criminal assaults, unforeseeable.  

Condominium associations do not have a “special relationship” with their unit owners. Their obligations to their unit owners run from the association’s governing documents, such as the declaration and the bylaws of the condominium association. As a result, there is not a generalized legal duty placed on condominium associations to protect their unit owners from criminal assaults.

The Atrium Unit Owners Association and Its Liability to Letellier 

The Atrium in Arlington is a high-rise condominium in Arlington, Virginia, adjacent to the Francis Scott Key Bridge to the District of Columbia. The building is comprised of interior-access condominium units and contains its own parking garage. According to court filings, the building employed a security camera system, restricted entrances, restricted guest access and other security measures such as owner-restricted electronic access mechanisms and a receptionist at a desk in the lobby monitoring entry into the building. 

In the case decided by the Arlington Court, an assailant assaulted the plaintiff, Lettelier, after sneaking into the building disguised as a maintenance worker by following two separate unit owners through locked security doors. The assailant was not stopped by the front desk receptionist in the lobby. When another unit owner reported to the front desk receptionist that a suspicious person was on the premises trying to gain access to random condominium units, the receptionist took no action. Further, most of the assailant’s actions in the condominium’s common elements were recorded on the condominium association’s security cameras. 

Under these circumstances, the Arlington Court found that the condominium association’s implementation of a sophisticated security system created a legal duty of the condominium association to use that system to protect its unit owners. The Arlington Court then also found that the condominium association’s failure to take action was potentially negligent and a breach of the condominium association’s duty. A jury ultimately found the Atrium Unit Owners Association liable and awarded civil damages to Letelleier. 

Lessons from Letellier v. The Atrium Unit Owners Association

The ruling against the Atrium is not an edict. Judge Fiore’s ruling in Letellier is not a ruling that has binding effect on other courts and other judges may view similar cases differently (due to the ruling being handed down by a circuit court judge, rather than by the Virginia Court of Appeals or the Virginia Supreme Court). Rather, the judge’s finding that the Atrium could be liable based on its implementation of a security system is a cautionary tale. In short, if a condominium association is going to expend its unit owners’ resources on providing security, the condominium association should actually provide security. 

What Condominium Associations Should Take Away From the Ruling in Letellier:

  • If a security system (such as one composed of cameras) is installed on the premises, the security system should be monitored. This does not mean that associations will be obligated to hire employees to watch live security footage continuously on all cameras; however, best practices likely include retaining designated security employees or contractors to routinely monitor cameras for suspicious activity. 

  • Associations should train employees to know what to do and who to tell if a unit owner reports suspicious activity.  

  • Associations should not cancel plans to install security systems (and certainly should not dismantle installed security measures) because providing security may create liability. Instead, associations should ensure any security measures are monitored and are well-maintained.

By: Jonathan W. Gonzalez, Esq.; Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani, LLP

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