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Horvitz & Levy LLP represented the defendant landowner in this important California Supreme Court case involving landowner liability for third party criminal conduct. The Court’s decision dealt with gang-related violence and a landowner’s duty to protect against such violence occurring on his or her premises. 

In Castaneda, the plaintiff was injured by a stray bullet from a gang shooting that occurred on the defendant’s property, a mobile home park. At trial, plaintiff Castaneda presented evidence of two prior shootings near the premises, one of which may have been gang related, as well as complaints by tenants and the manager about suspected gang members living in the mobile home park. Castaneda also presented evidence of prior property-related crimes, assaults, and drug sales occurring on the premises. He presented no evidence, however, that the residents involved in the shooting that caused his injuries were involved in the prior two shootings, the property-related crimes, the assaults or drug sales. The trial court granted non-suit for the defendant landowner and the Court of Appeal reversed.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal and reinstated the grant of non-suit for the defendant. In the first section of the a three-part decision, the Court held that a landowner does not have a duty to refuse housing to suspected gang members “absent circumstances making gang violence extraordinarily foreseeable.” Although the Court did not elaborate on what type of evidence would make gang violence “extraordinarily foreseeable” in this context, the opinion makes clear that looking and dressing like a gang member is insufficient, because to recognize a duty by landowners “to reject prospective tenants they believe, or have reason to believe, are gang members . . . would tend to encourage arbitrary housing discrimination.” In the second part of its decision, the Court held that a duty to evict a vicious or dangerous tenant exists only in cases where violence is highly foreseeable. Although there was evidence of property-related crimes, assaults, and a nearby gang-related shooting, Castaneda’s injury was not highly foreseeable because these prior crimes were not committed by the residents who took part in the shooting that injured him. In the third section, the Court held that security guards and additional lighting would have been ineffective in preventing the type of escalation and shooting that occurred in this case.

Over the last several years, the Court has taken a keen interest in the area of premises liability. This decision continues the Court’s measured and thoughtful approach toward landowner liability for third party criminal conduct.