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May 19, 2021

Unlocked Door Not a Proximate Cause of Gang Member Murder

Recently, in Estate of Murphy v. New York City Housing Authority, a New York appellate court reiterated its precedent that a landlord’s common-law duty to take minimal security measures to protect tenants from foreseeable criminal acts of third parties does not require the landlord to outwit those who are determined to overcome the security measures in order to commit a crime.

In Estate of Murphy, Tayshana Murphy was murdered in her apartment following altercations between members of rival gangs. Murphy’s apartment was situated in a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residential housing development. On the day of her killing, Murphy had been involved in a physical attack on a rival gang member. That evening, the rival gang member, now armed and accompanied by a member of his own gang, confronted Murphy in front of her apartment building. She fled into the building and the rival gang members followed, gaining access to the building via an unlocked side door, where they found Murphy in her fourth floor apartment and shot and killed her.

The plaintiff alleged that NYCHA was negligent for failing to provide adequate security measures on the subject premises, including properly functioning door locks. NYCHA later moved for summary judgment, arguing that Murphy’s killing was unforeseeable and that she was specifically targeted in an act of retaliation. The plaintiff argued that NYCHA had failed to provide the minimum security measures required and produced evidence of previous complaints to NYCHA of individuals commonly entering the building through this unlocked door by pulling on a window grate affixed to the door.

The trial court granted NYCHA’s motion, holding that the preplanned attack constituted an unforeseeable superseding cause of Murphy’s death. The Appellate Division, First Department affirmed the dismissal of the complaint. The evidence established that the perpetrators were intent on gaining access to the building in order to retaliate; even if the side door at issue had been locked, the perpetrators would have gained access by simply following a tenant into the building or forcing entry. Thus, the evidence negated the unlocked door as a proximate cause of the killing, rendering the perpetrator’s murderous intent the only proximate cause of the incident.  

In sum, while landlords cannot rely on the mere fact that a tenant was targeted as a means of shielding themselves from liability, they are not responsible for third-party criminal acts that seek to circumvent, ignore, or otherwise overcome the basic security measures they are required to maintain. Of note, it is important for any landlord or property owner to consider their venue as other New York State appellate courts may have applied different principles in assessing these facts. 

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Jessica Tariq, associate, at jtariq@barclaydamon.com, or another member of the firm’s Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.

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Unlocked Door Not a Proximate Cause of Gang Member Murder

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