On November 30, 2015, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted a motion for summary judgment to a series of Defendants in a negligence security claim under the basis that it was able to transfer the responsibility for maintenance, repair, replacement, and security to a Condominium Association. It was also opined that there is a condominium statutory exemption to holding the property owners responsible for certain negligent security claims.
On July 14, 2012, Plaintiff Filmore Johnson was employed by Vision Quest when, while placing a bag in the trunk of his car, he was attacked and robbed by two masked men. Mr. Johnson sustained injuries as a result of the attack. While he reported the crime to the Philadelphia Police Department, the perpetrators were never found.
Two years later, Mr. Johnson and his wife filed a claim in Philadelphia County identifying the property owners and possessors of the property as responsible for providing negligent security in the parking lot. The matter was successfully removed from Philadelphia County to Federal Court based upon the diversity of the parties. At the close of discovery, the owners of the property filed a motion to be dismissed from the case.
Plaintiffs’ cause of action is premised upon the theory that the Defendants were negligent in providing proper security for the parking lot area where Plaintiff was attacked and injured. The Federal Court, sitting in diversity, applied Pennsylvania law. Generally, Pennsylvania holds that there is no duty to control the conduct of the third party to protect another from harm. However, the Court relied upon the seminal case of Feld v. Merriam¸506 Pa. 383, 485 A. 2d 742 (1984) where the Supreme Court, confronted with this very issue, determined that a landlord had a duty to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal acts of third persons. The imposition of the general duty on landlords to protect tenants was the type of special relationship to which the Court extended responsibility/liability. The Court reasoned that one who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize is necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking if his failure to exercise such care increased the risk of harm or the harm is suffered because of another’s reliance upon the undertaking.
In the case before the Court, OYR was the owner in fee simple of the land and all the improvements thereon. On March 26, 2009, before the Plaintiff’s incident, the owners executed an “Amended and Restated Declaration of Condominium” thereby establishing a Condominium Association and five separate units. Pursuant to the Condominium Association Agreement, the Association was responsible for common element maintenance, including assigning to the Association the responsibility for maintenance, repair, replacement, and security of these common elements. The Court read the common element maintenance language and found:
In view of the clear and straight-forward nature of this language, we are constrained to agree that insofar as OYR . . . had transferred the responsibility for maintenance, repair, replacement and security to the . . . Association, it is properly dismissed as a defendant from this action.
The language of the Association Agreement can serve as an important tool to defer a property owner’s liability in this significant area of law.
Additionally, the Court was also asked to look at the Pennsylvania Uniform Condominium Act, specifically 68 Pa. C.S.A. § 3311(a)(2) to support the contention that OYR was not subject to Plaintiffs’ tort claim. The statute provides:
An action in tort alleging a wrong done by the association or by an agent or employee of the association, or an action arising from a contract made by or on behalf of the association, shall be brought against the association.
A unit owner shall not be subject to suit or . . . be otherwise directly or indirectly held accountable for the acts of the association or its agents or employees on behalf of the association.
The Court did not have to reach the second prong of this argument regarding the statute; however, it stated it would grant summary judgment in OYR’s favor on that basis as well. The Court found the Pennsylvania Uniform Condominium Act to be clear that where a property is divided into units and the responsibility for maintenance and upkeep is designated to the Condominium Association, an action for the failure of the Association shall not be brought against the unit owner. The Court determined:
Inasmuch as the assault here occurred in the parking lot, a common element, and concerned security, the responsibility for which was designated to the . . . Association, we conclude that OYR . . . is entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law on this ground as well.
This provided condominium unit owners/property owners an additional option to avoid liability in these situations where there is clear language placing the security responsibility upon a designated association. These relationships amongst the Defendants must be explored in each litigation in order to determine if such clear exceptions exist for the Courts to provide summary judgment protection from such litigation.