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Florida Supreme Court Upholds $4.5 Million Premises Liability Verdict

The Florida Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the $4.5 million jury verdict given to the surviving family members of two siblings who were murdered in their apartment in 2005 should be upheld against the apartment complex where they resided. This landmark premises liability case illustrates the importance of a landlord’s duty to his residents, especially regarding issues of security.

Facts of the Case

In the case of Shandalyn Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, Ciara Sanders, 20, and her brother Chauncey Sanders, 17, were living together in an apartment at Gatehouse on the Green apartments in Plantation, Florida in 2005. The complex was marketed as a gated community and had a gated front entrance. Water surrounded most of the property, and high walls or fencing surrounded the rest.

In September that year, both of the Sanders siblings were fatally gunned down in their apartment. Although there was no sign of forced entry, items in the apartment were stolen at the time of the murders. Upon investigating the apartment complex, it was revealed that in the last three years prior to the murders there were two criminal incidents where the front gate had been broken and criminals followed residents into the complex. One incident resulted in an armed robbery and the other in an assault.

Furthermore, it was discovered that the front gate had been broken for nearly two months prior to the Sanders siblings being shot to death. The company that owned the complex also failed to provide notice to the residents of over 20 criminal incidents, including seven burglaries, two robberies, and 10 car thefts that had also occurred within the last three years prior to the murders.

The personal representative of the Sanders’ estates filed a lawsuit against ERP Operating, alleging that the landlord’s negligence was a proximate cause of their deaths. The complaint argued that the landlord failed to keep the apartment complex in a reasonably safe condition by failing to “(1) maintain the front gate; (2) have adequate security; (3) prevent dangerous persons from gaining access to the premises; and (4) protect and warn residents of dangerous conditions and criminal acts.”

At trial, the jury agreed with the plaintiff and awarded the Sanders family a verdict of $4.5 million with the stipulation that the siblings were 40 percent negligent in the incident, bringing the total verdict to $1.8 million for the family. ERP Operating moved for a new trial, was denied, and then appealed the verdict. At the appellate level, the Fourth District reversed the trial court’s verdict, stating that without proof of how the assailants entered the building there was no basis for causation. The representative for the Sanders siblings then appealed that ruling to the Florida Supreme Court.

Ruling of the Court

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth District appellate court erred in their decision to overturn the ruling of the trial court. It relied first on the evidence presented at trial that the Sanders siblings had lived at the apartment for nine months prior to the killings and that 20 different criminal acts had occurred on the premises in the three years prior to the deaths, including five that had happened while the two siblings resided at the complex.

Furthermore, the Florida Supreme Court gave credit to the evidence pointing to the fact that the security measures put in place by the landlord were not serving their purpose to limit access only to people residing at the complex. In addition, there was a reasonable inference that the broken front gate led the perpetrators to be able to access the apartment of the Sanders siblings on the night of the shooting. Whether one of the Sanders let the assailants into the home was more of a question of comparative negligence and not premises liability.

Finally, the court found that the landlord’s failure to maintain the security gate and failure to have a courtesy officer visible probably allowed the murderers to get to the Sanders’ apartment without being detected. As a result, the court found that the plaintiff established a finding that the landlord more likely than not substantially contributed to the deaths of the Sanders siblings on their property, and as such the original trial verdict should be upheld.

Florida Premises Liability Law

In Florida, premises liability law dictates what duties a landowner or lessee owes to a person who is injured on the land. State law and court cases have separated the levels of duty by the visitor status of the person who is injured. The duties of a landlord or property owner in Florida have been defined by the Florida Bar Association as follows:

Public Invitee, Business Invitee & Licensee by Invitation:

A public invitee is a “person who is invited to enter or remain on the land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is open to the public.” A business invitee is “a person who is invited to enter or remain on the land for a purpose directly or indirectly connected with business dealings with the possessor of the land.” A licensee by invitation is also known as a social guest.

A landowner has a duty to correct or warn of any dangers on the property that are known or should be known by reasonable care of the property that the visitor cannot or should not know about. In addition, the possessor of the land must maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition, including guarding against potential third-party crimes.

Uninvited Licensee & Trespasser

An uninvited licensee is defined as “a person who chooses to come onto the land solely for their convenience without invitation, either express or reasonably implied,” and a trespasser is a person who enters the property without any invitation or right for some definite purpose, at their convenience, or merely as an idler.

The possessor of the land has a duty to keep from willful or wanton injury, such as removing any traps set for unwanted individuals. However, there is no duty to guard against third party crimes for an uninvited licensee or a trespasser.

Call a Florida Premises Liability Attorney Today

This case highlights the duty that landlords have to keep their property in good repair, repair known defects to the property, and provide safe and reasonable living conditions. If you or someone that you know has been injured on someone else’s property in Orlando, Tampa, Fort Myers, Jacksonville, or West Palm Beach, let the experienced personal injury attorneys at The Pendas Law Firm help. Call the office or contact us today for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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