Seven Tips for Handling Prospective Household's Security Questions
Just about every time an apartment crime occurs, it seems the victim sues the owner for negligence. If a crime occurs at your site, the question of whether or not an owner has provided households with adequate security will be the crux of any legal analysis. If a court rules that you didn’t take reasonable and necessary steps to reduce the risk of crime at your site, you could end up with a very costly verdict and face increased insurance premiums.
Another way you might be held liable is if you or your staff provided reassurances of safety to prospective households. These reassurances could be interpreted by the court as a promise on your part to provide an even greater level of security than you would ordinarily have had to provide.
Prospects concerned about security may ask your staff questions like “Is this building secure?” or “Is this neighborhood safe?” And to bring in more rentals, your staff may be tempted to offer assurances. But remarks such as “You’ll be safe here” or “This building has great security” can come back to haunt you if a crime later occurs. A court may view the employee’s assurance as the owner’s promise.
Basically, your leasing staff may be setting a standard for you that may be impossible to meet, and the result could be liability for any crime that occurs. Therefore, it’s important to train your staff to answer in a way that helps market the site, but doesn’t create additional liability.
Train Staff How to Respond to Security Questions
Because of the liability risk, many owners today won’t let their staff answer any questions about security, says security expert Norman Bates. According to Bates, in the apartment industry, there’s a fear that if your staff says that an apartment has security and then something happens, you’ll be sued for misrepresenting what you have. But a blanket prohibition isn’t practical because security is on prospects’ minds. Therefore, leasing staff must be prepared to handle direct questions about it.
Here are some tips to help your staff respond accurately to security questions without increasing your chances of liability for any crimes that may be committed at your site in the future.
Tip #1: Don’t discuss security unless prospects do. Staffers should discuss security only when prospects ask direct questions about it. The leasing agent or site manager shouldn’t bring up your building’s security measures to a prospect without first being prompted by the prospect. Many prospects, especially female ones, will ask about security, and Bates recommends that owners prepare a script for staffers for when they do.
Tip #2: Refer prospects to police. If prospects press the leasing agents for more information and crime statistics, Bates recommends telling your staff to advise prospects to ask the police for more information about crime at the site or neighborhood, including crime statistics. Your staff members aren’t involved with law enforcement or security. So the police should be able to give prospects more accurate information. So have leasing agents give out the phone number of the local police.
Tip #3: Don’t boast about safety record. If prospects do ask questions, staffers’ responses should be restrained and measured. In general, leasing consultants are trained to detect and push prospects’ hot-button issues. And one such issue is security. But because of the liability implications, your staff mustn’t “puff up” security the way they might other features. They must understand that security isn’t just another selling point.
Therefore, you need to warn them not to make blanket statements or offer assurances like the neighborhood or building “is perfectly safe” or “is perfect for students, single women, senior citizens, children, etc.” Even if you or your staff believe this, don’t say so. Describing the neighborhood or building as safe may be construed as a guarantee or promise that no crime will occur in the future.
Tip #4: Don’t give off-the-record opinions. Leasing agents may make sweeping statements to reassure prospects. They might provide off-the-record opinions, letting prospects know how safe they feel the site is. Although they’re meant as sincere, personal opinions, such remarks may turn out to be not off-the-record after all. If a crime later occurs, they too could be considered assurances that lead to liability.
Tip #5: Disclose prior crimes. You can be liable for not warning prospects of a danger you know about. If you know about prior crimes in the community or neighborhood, you should reveal what you know when asked even if you risk losing the rental. Otherwise, you’re exposing yourself to major liability, including possible fraud.
In one Florida case, a resident sued an owner for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and intentional misrepresentation. The resident’s car was carjacked from the building’s parking lot, and she was shot. There was testimony that a leasing agent told her that the site hadn’t experienced any crime for years and that it was guarded at night. However, other testimony indicated that many crimes, including violent ones, had occurred there. Former employees testified that management was indifferent to security matters, and that it instructed leasing agents to tell prospective tenants “there’s no crime that we know of here.” A jury returned a verdict for the resident. And the court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to establish either “gross negligence” or “intentional misconduct” to justify punitive damages [Southstar Equity, LLC v. Chau, February 2008].
While you have a responsibility to disclose prior crimes to prospects when they ask, you don’t want your staff deciding what to say and how to say it. Instead, give your employees a response prepared by upper management and your attorney, tailored for your site. Have them rehearse it and state it verbatim without extra additions or changes. This is important because of the danger of saying the wrong thing.
What should that response be? There is no simple answer. Some owners provide basic crime statistics. You may also give prospects any warning letters or notices you give residents after a crime occurs. Whatever approach you take, upper management and an attorney should discuss the matter and reach a decision.
Tip #6: Give facts about amenities and services. In a rape case that Bates helped defend, a Boston-based company had to settle for $1.5 million. The company’s property manager buried the case in her deposition by unequivocally stating that the apartment building had no security whatsoever. The resident’s attorney was able to make her look foolish, and the company had to rethink its litigation strategy.
One thing your staff can do, if they are careful, is describe the measures you take and equipment you have to minimize the risk of crime. For example, it is okay to tell prospects that your site has alarm systems or controlled access gates, as long as it really does and as long as those things are actually functioning. Other security measures that your building may have are lighting, locks, and background checks on prospective tenants and employees.
Tip #7: State clearly that you make no guarantees. After mentioning the facts concerning the building’s security measures, Bates recommends emphasizing that the owner cannot guaranty anybody’s safety. To make sure they have not been misconstrued, instruct leasing consultants to say that you’re not offering any promises or guarantees concerning security.
There is no juror who will say that you can make such guarantees, says Bates. Remind prospects that crime can occur anywhere and that complete safety cannot be guaranteed. This will keep prospects grounded in reality and help prevent them from having unrealistic expectations about your building.
Norman D. Bates, Esq.: President, Liability Consultants, Inc., 591 Sugar Rd., Bolton, MA 01740; www.liabilityconsultants.com.