Wednesday, May 5, 2004
C.A. Reinstates Suit Charging Landlord Was Liable for Tenant’s Murder
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A lawsuit charging that the owners of a San Diego County apartment complex are liable for the murder of a tenant because they failed to replace a broken glass pane in the door of her apartment was reinstated yesterday by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Residential Investments, Inc. had been told about the missing pane, and should have known that not replacing it rendered the tenant more vulnerable to intruders, Justice Alex McDonald wrote for Div. One.
Whether its breach of duty was a legal cause of the murder, and, if so, how its fault should be compared to that of the murderer, are issues of fact that can only be resolved at trial, the justice added.
The ruling overturns a summary judgment in favor of Residential Investments and sends the case back to the San Diego Superior Court.
The complaint was brought on behalf of Abigail Vasquez, who was nine months old when her mother, Abigail Ramirez, was stabbed to death in 2000. The infant’s father, Jesus Vasquez, was accused of having murdered Ramirez—stabbing her more than 20 times as she clutched the baby—in a confrontation over her alleged involvement with a former boyfriend.
Vasquez, Ramirez and their child had been living with Vasquez’s parents, but Ramirez left after an argument and moved in with her parents a few days before she died.
Vasquez was convicted of murder and is now serving a term of nearly 34 years to life in prison, including one year for starting a fracas when he attempted to grab a deputy sheriff’s gun after the jury verdict was read.
It took pepper spray and a “flurry of baton blows” to subdue him, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported at the time.
Vasquez was deposed in prison while the summary judgment motion was pending. He testified that he went to the apartment, and that Ramirez and her mother would not let him in.
He noted a plywood panel in the space at the top of the door where the pane of glass was missing, he testified, and knocked it out with a “hard knock,” gaining entry. He said it was unlikely he would have punched out a pane of glass if it had been there, but that he would have instead waited for Ramirez outside.
The plaintiff presented evidence that the landlord knew the pane of glass was missing, and had been warned the tenants considered the lack of glass to be a security risk. The building manager had purchased materials to replace the glass a month earlier, but had not done the work.
The manager had earlier covered the spot with cardboard. The plywood panel was installed by Ramirez’s brother, according to testimony, after numerous complaints failed to bring action by the landlord.
In granting summary judgment, Superior Court Judge Luis R. Vargas reasoned that the landlord lacked a tort duty to replace the glass to prevent intrusion, absent notice of Vasquez’s violent tendencies or of criminal activity around the building.
McDonald, writing for the Court of Appeal, disagreed.
The scope of a property owner’s duty to protect persons on the premises from criminal acts of third parties, the jurist explained, is determined by four factors—the availability of preventative measures, the financial and social cost of taking those measures, and the nature and foreseeability of the criminal conduct.
McDonald distinguished several cases in which landlords were held to lack a duty to protect occupants from criminal acts. In all of those cases, he said, the criminal conduct was less foreseeable or the cost of preventing it was much greater.
Here, he said, the landlord, having acquired materials to replace the glass, could have completed the job for $15. Where the burden is so minimal, even slight foreseeability will justify the imposition of a duty, McDonald said.
The plaintiffs, he concluded, presented sufficient evidence of foreseeability to establish the existence of a duty. He cited the prior complaints by Ramirez’s parents, along with proof of a prior incident in which an intruder tried to get into the apartment—in an apparent case of mistaken identity—and reports of assaults in other apartments in the building.
McDonald also rejected the landlord’s contention that the plaintiff could not establish a causal link between the lack of a glass pane and the attack.
Vasquez’s testimony, the justice said, created at least a triable issue as to whether the killer’s “self-preservation instinct” would have dissuaded him from punching through a pane of glass.
The case is Vasquez v. Residential Investments, Inc., D042575.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company