A July decision by a Superior Court judge could open the door to holding condominium associations responsible for the safety and security of building occupants if the threat is reasonably foreseeable.
And that could mean big costs for condo owners if properties are found to be negligent.
In Field, et al. v. Highbridge Concierge Inc., et al., the estates of two anesthesiologists who were brutally murdered in their South Boston penthouse condo in 2017 are suing the condominium association as well as the management and concierge companies. On Oct. 20, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the convictions of Bampumim S. Teixeira, who is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Teixeira had worked as a concierge in the building.
Lawyers for the condo association asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuits by the doctors’ estates on the grounds that the group had no legal requirement to protect residents against crimes committed by a third party.
In her decision to allow the case to go forward, Associate Justice Christine M. Roach said, “a condominium association bears a duty to exercise due care for the residents’ safety in those areas under the association’s control.”
The decision has condominium lawyers advising their clients to review their security policies and procedures to flag any vulnerabilities and address them.
Ed Allcock, a lawyer at Allcock Marcus in Braintree, said he’s telling his clients to reconsider their approach to building safety. “Management and concierge companies are both going to have disclaimers in their contracts with condominiums that contractually disavow any security obligations,” Allcock said. “So then it falls back to the association. Maybe the best way for an association to protect itself is to hire a security company.”
Thomas O. Moriarty, an attorney with Moriarty, Troyer & Malloy, said the ruling didn’t really surprise him. He has been advising his condo clients to consult with security experts and implement all of the recommendations they can afford.
It’s about more than just risk management, Moriarty said.
“You’re not going to eliminate the risk, but you can reduce it,” he said. “And boards should do everything they can do because it’s the morally correct thing to do. People who serve on condominium boards are volunteers, and they get involved for the most part because they want to contribute to their neighborhood and their communities. They want to do the right things.”
Moriarty said many professionally managed condominium associations are appropriately insured for most risks, but all policies have limits. Condo owners should take the Roach decision seriously because damages awarded in a wrongful death claim on a property could be several million dollars or more. If the insurance policy doesn’t cover the entire judgment, individual unit owners could be held responsible for the balance.
Christopher R. Lanni is the founder and president of Secure Residential Services, a Hudson-based firm that consults with condominium and homeowner associations to identify and address security issues.
It all starts with an assessment, one that looks at all areas of the property, Lanni said. “How do we handle guests and visitors and parking and day-to-day operations? … We look at things like lighting, locks, keys, cameras, and other technology.”
He said he also analyzes area crime data and goes through the condo rules and procedures to ascertain whether they are being followed consistently.
“For example, it’s not uncommon to see a loading dock that has a big overhead door,” he said. “So the trucks come in in the morning. The doors [are] up and often stay up all day. People kind of come and go on foot, in and out of that space, but there’s no interior separation. Someone walking by could just walk right in. And where could they go from there?”
He said choosing the best solution depends on the physical structure of the building, the security budget, the relative size of the risk, and even the building demographics, to some extent. However, even something as simple as upgrading the locks has to be thought through, he said. “Say you want to take a condominium from metal keys to key fobs or a credential on their smartphone. For a building filled with relatively young people, it’s a quick and easy change, but if most of the residents have been there for 30 years, many won’t be comfortable with the new technology.”
Some things, such as periodically changing the lock codes to common areas or revising policies and procedures are free or inexpensive. Other things, like high-tech security systems or full-time guards are more expensive. Lanni said he works with associations to prioritize their security liabilities and provide as many solutions as possible. Often, associations end up increasing their security budget and phasing in solutions over several years.
“We talk about must-haves, nice-to-haves, and budget,” he said. “A $50 camera bought off the shelf and installed outside the front door isn’t going to record license plates on passing vehicles, for example. Cameras have to have a certain quality with certain functions. They have to be installed in specific locations at a certain angle from passing vehicles to do that.”
Lanni said condo association trustees should try to look at their building, policies, and procedures as if for the first time.
“Security is very often very narrowly defined,” he said. “People might think they have ‘security’ because they see a security guard doing security things, but security means something different in every building. You’re always going to have some level of risk, but if you can at least mitigate some of the vulnerabilities, that’s a great start.”
Jim Morrison can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at Boston.com/realestate. Follow us on Twitter @GlobeHomes.