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March 21, 2012

Case Report
Michael S. Appel

$4.5 million settlement for parents of slain college student

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Sugarman Rogers’ partner Michael S. Appel recently obtained a $4.5 million settlement on behalf of the parents of a young female college student who was shot to death in her off-campus apartment in Boston, and who brought a wrongful-death action against the owner and management company of the apartment building where the murder occurred.

The case arose out of the murder of a college student at a local university who was shot to death in her off-campus apartment in Boston. The decedent was survived by her parents who brought a wrongful death action against both the landlord and the management company of the apartment building. The evidence, all circumstantial, pointed to the strong likelihood that the assailant had entered through the unsecured sliding glass doors which led to the balcony of her apartment unit and shot her multiple times in the torso and legs. There were no known witnesses to the shooting and the perpetrator has never been apprehended.

There was compelling evidence that the defendants were in breach of the warranty of habitability and, accordingly, also in violation of c. 93A. The evidence was undisputed that the sliding glass doors of the apartment unit were not capable of being secured against unlawful entry and therefore in violation of the State Sanitary Code. Moreover, there were numerous aggravating factors exposing the defendants to the possibility of multiple damages under c. 93A as well as punitive damages under the wrongful death statute. Violent crime in the building was foreseeable. The apartment building was located in a high crime neighborhood and there had been numerous serious crimes on the premises prior to the decedent’s murder. The evidence also revealed that the building “super” did not conduct an adequate inspection of the decedent’s unit prior to commencement of the tenancy and did not make any attempt to repair the problems with the sliding glass doors.

In addition, there was no evidence that the defendants had ever conducted a security audit or assessment of the premises during the period in which they owned and managed the building. Further, the building management used an outdated CCTV system which had an insufficient number of cameras and used old VHS technology. Finally, there was evidence that the defendants’ on-site employees, the super and the site manager, received little or no training in security and had negligently failed to properly maintain other entry doors to the common areas of the building. There was also compelling evidence that the defendants’ negligence and breach of warranty were substantial factors in causing the decedent’s death. Photos taken shortly after the decedent’s body was found showed that the sliding glass doors, along with the screens, were open sufficiently for an intruder to enter the apartment. Given the nature of the assault, the time of night when it occurred (the very early morning hours), the condition of the sliding glass doors suggesting a break-in, the use of a gun as the murder weapon, and the routine activities of the decedent and her circle of friends (she did not associate with people who were involved in any criminal violence, drug or gang-related activity), it was extremely unlikely that her assailant was an acquaintance whom she allowed into her apartment.

No pecuniary loss was alleged but the “loss of consortium” damages available under the wrongful death statute were likely to be substantial. The decedent was an accomplished, vivacious and very well-liked young woman. She was the only child of her parents who had been married for 35 years. In addition, there was evidence of conscious pain and suffering by the decedent prior to her death. Blood tracks on the floor of the apartment indicated that she had been shot in one room of the apartment and crawled into another room where her body was found.

A further aggravating factor in the case arose out of conduct by the management company after the decedent’s murder. After a request by the parents for return of the security deposit, the management refused on the grounds that clean up of the apartment after the murder involved “hazardous waste” and was “very expensive.” This behavior was not only extremely callous but legally indefensible as those clean up costs could not possibly have been construed as damages under the rent and security deposit agreement that was part of the lease. Accordingly, the parents, in addition to the wrongful death claims asserted as administrators of the estate, brought, in their individual capacities, an additional claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The case settled after mediation conducted by Paul Finn of Commonwealth