Lighting, Safety, & Landlord Liability
April 1, 2007
The image is one of murder mysteries and horror movies. A single woman walking down a street, lit by a single, hanging bulb that in no way affords a reassuring view of the surroundings. Her clicking heels echo against the solid brick walls louder and louder. What little light there is only deepens the shadows. Hiding behind every fence, shrub and blade of grass you expect a lunatic or serial rapist.
Is that how your tenants, their guests and your prospective tenants view your rental properties? Would they enter them at night only with extreme trepidation? Would they feel compelled to bring with them bodyguards and weapons in order to feel safer?
The image of security sells rental property to tenants. Good lighting makes properties feel secure. Mind you, you should never mention the lighting itself and how you installed it to make the building more secure, that’s asking for a lawsuit if a crime is ever committed on the premises. But you won’t have to say anything if the lighting is done right, all you’ll need do is turn it on.
What is good lighting? First, good lighting denies camouflage. Bad guys have an aversion to being seen. They know their nefarious activities are best carried out under cover of darkness—and the darker the better. The element of surprise is an important weapon to criminals, and darkness provides that weapon.
Good lighting doesn’t leave places for crooks to hide. No dark shadows, no eerie pathways, no dingy alleys. It means when you walk through an area, you feel confident there are no surprises lurking in the shadows.
Second, good lighting psychologically deters criminals. Criminals prefer to commit crimes on their terms, under conditions conducive to not being caught. When a criminal comes upon a well-lit area, he will look for another place to be a bad guy.
In a perfect world, or maybe not so perfect, good lighting would turn night into day. For a number of reasons, though, that is neither possible nor desirable. What is required is a system that furnishes a high level of visibility and a low level of glare.
In fact good lighting consists of three components: luminance, uniformity and lack of glare. Luminance is nothing more than the amount of light falling on a surface and is measured in foot-candles. Uniformity is critical. Just as important as or even more important than the amount of light is the uniformity of light. Consider this: the swimming pool area is brightly lit, but the area surrounding it and the pathways to the apartments is hardly lit at all. The eyes of people leaving the swimming pool have adjusted to the brightness there and are temporarily blinded when they walk into the darkness — a perfect opportunity for a criminal, or for an accident.
The experts say that the brightest areas in a person’s field of vision should not exceed ten times the brightness of the average level to which the eye is adapted. Marked differences in brightness are an especially serious problem for the aging eye.
So good lighting also includes “transitional lighting.” That provides a gradual change in the level of light from a brightly lit area to a dark area, so eyes have a chance to adjust. Glare reduces the contrast of an object against its background, making it difficult for the eye to make out depth with any accuracy. Glare can be avoided with proper lights and light placement.
Where crimes occur
A study by Liability Consultants, Inc. of Sudbury MA looked at 599 crimes that resulted in lawsuits committed in various parts of the country from 1993-1997. That study found that 130 crimes, the highest number, were committed in parking lots (of all kinds of businesses, not just multi-housing), and an additional 108 were committed in common areas, either interior or exterior. These are areas over which the landlord has control and require attention as to planning for lighting for the safety of tenants and guests.
Crimes are more likely to occur in parking facilities because of the large volume of space in relation to the amount of activity. Common areas normally also have a relatively small amount of activity com- pared to their space and so get an inordinate share of crime. People are in their homes or away from their homes, not hanging out in parking lots or common areas, unless some special event is going on. Depending on the type of building, common areas can include the walkways leading to individual units.
Liability for property owners
Property owners lose liability suits when they knew about or should have known about a potentially dangerous situation or condition, or should have foreseen that a crime would occur in their rental property.
Foreseeability consists of three components: the nature of the premises, crime demographics, and location. You can judge them in that order of importance. In other words the nature of the premises is most important, crime demographics are second most important, and location has the least importance, since if the first and second components are controlled, location has little consequence.
You have control over the nature of the premises to a large extent. The type of premises you are looking at as a rental property owner will always be the same, in that it will always be rental property. How that rental property is presented to the public is the factor that quantifies its nature relative to other rental properties.
You can present it as foreseeing crime and hazard problems, or you can present it as ignoring crime and hazards. You can logically foresee crime problems if your properties have poor lighting, and thus are inviting criminals to come in and do their “jobs.”
Corey Gordon and William Brill wrote in their research paper “The Expanding Role of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in Premises Liability”:
“A common premises liability case in an apartment complex involves the rape of a woman by an intruder. Although the complaint may allege deficiencies in the guard service or management policy, environmental factors are usually at the center of these cases.
“Typical allegations in these cases involve charges that the lighting was poor, the perimeter of the property was unsecured, access was uncontrolled, and the locking systems were inadequate. Sometimes a specific deficiency will dominate the case. A sliding glass door, for example, that the intruder was able to lift off the track, pry open, or bend easily so it could be opened; an apartment door that did not have a deadbolt lock on it; or a laundry room, located in an isolated part of the building that a victim was either trapped in or dragged into, are common deficiencies that are central to many cases.
“These cases also involve testimony concerning the evaluation of the environment by the perpetrator, a necessary element to any case because of the need for the jury to rule on the legal issue of proximate cause, i.e., to what extent the security deficiencies contributed to the criminal’s decision to attack. In order for a jury to find for a crime victim, it must conclude that the property owner failed to provide reasonable adequate security and that this failure contributed to the victim’s injury.
“The plaintiff will present basic CPTED concepts to make his or her case, arguing that the setting played a major role in the crime. Through sketches, designs, and photographs, the jury will be invited to see the property as the criminal viewed it. For example, did the property look well maintained? Did it look defended, or was access easy? Could the perpetrator enter unchallenged? Was space defined on the property? Did it present psychological barriers that had to be crossed or was the space ill-defined, anonymous? How difficult was it to approach private space such as windows, patios, and back doors unobserved?
“In this kind of presentation, jurors are briefed on some of the principles of environmental design. They are told that design influences behavior; they are provided examples of how design shapes everyday behavior–from the design of their homes to the design of churches, shopping centers, even courtrooms. Finally, jurors are asked the ultimate question: To what extent did the environment contribute to the crime, and what could the landlord or building owner have done from a design standpoint that would have been both reasonable and effective in deterring or preventing the crime?”
Three Key CPTED Principles
These are three basic and overlapping principles in the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) concept.
We need to create environments where there is plenty of opportunity for people engaged in their normal behavior to observe the space around them. Design the placement of physical features, activities and people to maximize visibility and natural surveillance.
Natural Access Control:
Most criminal intruders will try to find a way into an area where they will not be easily observed. Limit access and increase natural surveillance to keep them out altogether or mark them as an intruder. Selectively place entrances and exits, fencing, lighting and landscape to control the flow of or limit access.
Natural Territorial Reinforcement: An environment designed to clearly delineate private space does two things. First, it creates a sense of ownership. Owners have vested interest and are more likely to challenge intruders or report them to the police. Second, the sense of owned space creates an environment where “strangers” or “intruders” stand out and are more easily identified.
Use buildings, fences, pavement, signs, lighting and landscape to express ownership and define public, semi-public and private space.