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Alvardo v. Blair House: Condominium Complex Held Not to Have Breached Duty of Care to Tenant’s Guest in Failing to Provide Adequate Security Measures

November 12, 2014

In an opinion dated August 27, 2014, in affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division held that Blair House, a condominium complex, and its property manager and its security company had not breached any duty of care owed to a guest of a tenant for allegedly failing to provide adequate security measures. Alvardo v. Blair House, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2016, 2014 WL 4212436 (App. Div. Aug. 27, 2014)[2].
Facts of the Case
While visiting her boyfriend on July 11, 2010 at approximately 12:15 am, Melissa Alvarado was approached by two individuals, Eric Obugyei and Catherine Smith, as she walked from the visitor’s parking lot towards the front entrance of Blair House. The two individuals persuaded Ms. Alvarado to drive them to a nearby bus station and, after driving them out of the Blair House lot, Obugyei and Smith abducted Ms. Alvarado and stole her car. Ms. Alvarado brought a negligence claim against Blair House, its property manager, and its security company, alleging that her injuries could have been prevented had the defendants provided more adequate security measures.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and this appeal followed. Although the defendants had a duty to take reasonable security precautions to protect Blair House tenants and their guests, including the plaintiff, from foreseeable criminal acts in common areas, the Appellate Division focused instead on the issue of whether defendants breached that duty.
At the time of the incident, a security camera was pointed at the area where the plaintiff first encountered Obugyei and Smith. The images from this camera were streamed live, twenty-four hours a day, on a closed-circuit television monitor inside the building. Additionally, an employee from the security company was also on duty twenty-four hours a day. The plaintiff argued that the security guard on duty should have been constantly monitoring the security camera and was obligated to ask Obugyei and Smith why they were on the Blair House premises. Moreover, the plaintiff contended that if the security guard had confronted the two individuals, they would have been deterred from abducting her because they would have realized they had been recorded by the security camera. Additionally, the plaintiff’s expert introduced records from the Hackensack Police Department which revealed the police had been called to Blair House eighty-five times during the three years preceding the incident, suggesting the condominium complex was “rife” with criminal activity.
Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Appellate Division held that no reasonable jury could infer the defendants breached a duty of care to the plaintiff as a result of the security guard’s failure to question Obugyei and Smith. To a reasonable observer, the encounter among the three adults appeared innocuous and unremarkable. Based upon her own testimony, the plaintiff would have been seen handing her cell phone to Obugyei who, after a few minutes, returned the phone to her. Then plaintiff would have been seen getting behind the wheel of her parked car, followed by Obugyei and Smith, and driving her car with the two passengers off of the Blair House lot, without any force or coercion. Based on the plaintiff’s own description of the events, the Appellate Division found nothing to suggest that any criminal action had or was going to occur and that there were no outward signs of confrontation, hostility, or aggression. Therefore, under these facts, no evidence existed showing that defendants’ breached their duty of care.
Practice Pointer
In seeking to defend against a similar negligence claim for alleged failure to provide adequate security, carriers and their counsel should focus their investigations on the type of criminal activity that was reasonably foreseeable at the time of incident and the precautions taken to prevent such activity.
[1] The caption for this case is Alvardo v. Blair House, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2106, 2014 WL 4212436 (App. Div. Aug. 27, 2014),  however the proper spelling of plaintiff’s name is Melissa Alvarado.
[1] Please note, the underlying case and this appeal were handled by attorneys other than Zarwin Baum.

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