The Florida Supreme Court held this month that an apartment complex could be held liable for the shooting deaths of two of its residents by unknown attackers. At issue in the case, Sanders v. ERP Operating Limited Partnership, was whether or not the jury could have reasonably found that the defendant was a proximate cause of the decedents’ deaths, given that the method by which the assailants gained entry to the apartment complex was unknown. The court held that the plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that the defendant was a proximate cause of the decedents’ deaths.
In 2004, two residents of an apartment complex owned by the defendant were shot in their apartment by unknown parties. At trial, the evidence showed that, although the apartment complex was advertised as a “gated community,” the gate was broken for four months of the year prior to the murders, including the two months immediately preceding them.
The jury found that the apartment complex was 40 percent liable for the deaths and awarded damages. After the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for a directed verdict, the appellate court reversed, holding that since the assailants’ method of entry was unknown, proximate causation could not be established.
Proximate cause is one element of a negligence case and is partly a question of foreseeability. If a plaintiff’s injuries were a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s behavior, the defendant is a proximate cause of the injuries. In other words, was the defendant’s breach a substantial contributing factor to the plaintiff’s injuries? This must be proven by a “more likely than not” standard, meaning that a mere possibility that the defendant was a substantial contributing factor is not enough.
The Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs did present evidence that would allow the jury to conclude that the defendant was a proximate cause of the decedents’ deaths. In the three years prior to the murders, there were 20 criminal incidents on the property, including multiple armed robberies, assaults, burglaries, and thefts. The plaintiffs’ expert testified that many of these crimes were opportunistic, meaning that they occurred because their perpetrators found circumstances ripe for their commission. These facts, in conjunction with evidence about the broken security gate, made it reasonable for the jury to conclude that the defendant was a proximate cause of the deaths. Therefore, overturning the denial of the defendant’s motion for a directed verdict was improper.
If you were injured because someone around you acted irresponsibly, you may be entitled to pursue compensation for your injuries. The Southwest Florida personal injury attorneys at Lusk, Drasites & Tolisano have significant experience helping injured residents of Naples, Cape Coral, and the surrounding areas. To see if we can help you, call (800) 283-7442.