Frances T. v. Village Green Owners Assn.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation723 P.2d 573,229 Cal.Rptr. 456,42 Cal.3d 490
Parties, 723 P.2d 573, 59 A.L.R.4th 447, 55 USLW 2174 FRANCES T., Plaintiff and Appellant, v. VILLAGE GREEN OWNERS ASSOCIATION et al., Defendants and Respondents. L.A. 31873.
Decision Date04 September 1986

Terry Steinhart, Los Angeles, for plaintiff and appellant.

Jamoa A. Moberly, Schell & Delamer, Steven J. Revitz and Raiskin & Revitz, Los Angeles, for appellant Charles Brittin.

Jamoa A. Moberly, Schell & Delamer, Los Angeles, for defendant and respondent Village Green Project.


The question presented is whether a condominium owners association and the individual members of its board of directors may be held liable for injuries to a unit owner caused by third-party criminal conduct. Plaintiff, Frances T., brought suit against the Village Green Owners Association (the Association) 1 and individual members of its board of directors for injuries sustained when she was attacked in her condominium unit, a part of the Village Green Condominium Project (Project). Her complaint stated three causes of action: negligence, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. The trial court sustained defendants' general demurrers to plaintiff's three causes of action without leave to amend and entered a judgment of dismissal. Plaintiff appealed.


On the night of October 8, 1980, an unidentified person entered plaintiff's condominium unit under cover of darkness and molested, raped and robbed her. At the time of the incident, plaintiff's unit had no exterior lighting. The manner in which her unit came to be without exterior lighting on this particular evening forms the basis of her lawsuit against the defendants. 2

The Association, of which plaintiff was a member, is a nonprofit corporation composed of owners of individual condominium units. The Association was formed and exists for the purposes set forth in the Project's declaration of covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs). The board of directors (board) exercises the powers of the Association and conducts, manages and controls the affairs of the Project and the Association. Among other things the Association, through its board, is authorized to enforce the regulations set forth in the CC&Rs. The Association, through the board, is also responsible for the management of the Project and for the maintenance of the Project's common areas.

At the time of the incident, the Project consisted of 92 buildings, each containing several individual condominium units, situated in grassy golf course and parklike areas known as "courts." Plaintiff's unit faced the largest court. She alleges that "the lighting in [the] park-like area was exceedingly poor, and after sunset, aside from the miniscule park light of plaintiff's, the area was in virtual ... darkness. Of all the condominium units in [plaintiff's court] ... plaintiff's unit was in the darkest place."

Throughout 1980, the Project was subject to what plaintiff terms an "exceptional crimewave" that included car thefts, purse snatchings, dwelling burglaries and robberies. All of the Project's residents, including the board, were aware of and concerned about this "crimewave." From January through July 1980, articles about the crimewave and possible protective measures were published in the Association's newsletter and distributed to the residents of the Project, including the directors. The newsletters show that residents, including the directors, were aware of some of the residents' complaints regarding lighting. 3

In early 1980 the board began to investigate what could be done to improve the lighting in the Project. The investigation was conducted by the Project's architectural guidelines committee.

Plaintiff's unit was first burglarized in April 1980. Believing the incident would not have occurred if there had been adequate lighting at the end of her court, plaintiff caused the following item to be printed in the Association's newsletter: "With reference to other lighting, Fran [T.] of Ct 4, whose home was entered, feels certain (and asked that this be mentioned) that the break-in would not have occurred if there had been adequate lighting at the end of her Court. This has since been corrected. We hope other areas which need improvement will soon be taken care of.... " 4

In May 1980 plaintiff and other residents of her court had a meeting. As court representative plaintiff transmitted a formal request to the Project's manager with a copy to the board that more lighting be installed in their court as soon as possible. 5

Plaintiff submitted another memorandum in August 1980 because the board had taken no action on the previous requests. The memorandum stated that none of the lighting requests from plaintiff's court had been responded to. Plaintiff also requested that a copy of the memorandum be placed in the board's correspondence file.

By late August, the board had still taken no action. Plaintiff then installed additional exterior lighting at her unit, believing that this would protect her from crime. In a letter dated August 29, 1980, however, the site manager told plaintiff that she would have to remove the lighting because it violated the CC & Rs. Plaintiff refused to comply with this request. After appearing at a board meeting, where she requested permission to maintain her lighting until the board improved the general lighting that she believed to be a hazard, she received a communication from the board stating in part: "The Board has indicated their appreciation for your appearance on October 1, and for the information you presented to them. After deliberation, however, the Board resolved as follows: [p] You are requested to remove the exterior lighting you added to your front door and in your patio and to restore the Association Property to its original condition on or before October 6. If this is not done on or before that date, the Association will have the work done and bill you for the costs incurred."

The site manager subsequently instructed plaintiff that pending their removal, she could not use the additional exterior lighting. The security lights had been installed using the same circuitry used for the original exterior lighting and were operated by the same switches. In order not to use her additional lighting, plaintiff was required to forego the use of all of her exterior lights. In spite of this, however, plaintiff complied with the board's order and cut off the electric power on the circuitry controlling the exterior lighting during the daylight hours of October 8, 1980. As a result, her unit was in total darkness on October 8, 1980, the night she was raped and robbed.

II. Negligence

In her first cause of action plaintiff alleged that the Association and the board negligently failed to complete the investigation of lighting alternatives within a reasonable time, failed to present proposals regarding lighting alternatives to members of the Association, negligently failed to respond to the requests for additional lighting and wrongfully ordered her to remove the lighting that she had installed. She contends that these negligent acts and omissions were the proximate cause of her injuries.

The fundamental issue here is whether petitioners, the condominium Association and its individual directors, owed plaintiff the same duty of care as would a landlord in the traditional landlord-tenant relationship. We conclude that plaintiff has pleaded facts sufficient to state a cause of action for negligence against both the Association and the individual directors.

A. The Association's Duty of Care.

The scope of a condominium association's duty to a unit owner in a situation such as this is a question of first impression. Plaintiff contends, and we agree, that under the circumstances of this case the Association should be held to the same standard of care as a landlord.

Defendants based their demurrer to the negligence cause of action on the theory that the Association owed no duty to plaintiff to improve the lighting outside her unit. The Association argues that it would be unfair to impose upon it a duty to provide "expensive security measures" when it is not a landlord in the traditional sense, but a nonprofit association of homeowners. The Association contends that under its own CC & Rs, it cannot permit residents to improve the security of the common areas without prior written permission, nor can it substantially increase its limited budget for common-area improvements without the approval of a majority of the members.

But regardless of these self-imposed constraints, the Association is, for all practical purposes, the Project's "landlord." 6 6 And traditional tort principles impose on landlords, no less than on homeowner associations that function as a landlord in maintaining the common areas of a large condominium complex, a duty to exercise due care for the residents' safety in those areas under their control. (See, e.g., Kwaitkowski v. Superior Trading Co. (1981) 123 Cal.App.3d 324, 328, 176 Cal.Rptr. 494; O'Hara v. Western Seven Trees Corp., supra, 75 Cal.App.3d 798, 802-803, 142 Cal.Rptr. 487; Kline v. 1500 Massachusetts Avenue Apartment Corp. (D.C. Cir.1970) 439 F.2d 477, 480-481; Scott v. Watson (1976) 278 Md. 160, 359 A.2d 548, 552.)

Two previous California decisions support our conclusion that a condominium association may properly be held to a landlord's standard of care as to the common areas under its control. In White v. Cox, supra, 17 Cal.App.3d 824, 95 Cal.Rptr. 259, the court held that a condominium owner could sue the unincorporated association for negligently maintaining a sprinkler in a common area of the complex. In so holding, the court recognized that the plaintiff, a member of the unincorporated association, had no "effective control over the operation of the common areas ... for in fact he had no more control over operations than he would have had as a stockholder in a...

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