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Am I on the hook for letting a burglar into my building?

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Q. My neighbor's apartment was recently burglarized, and the co-op board says they have security footage of the suspect entering the building right behind me. We don't have a doorman. Am I at all liable to my neighbor or the board?

A. You may have had a valid reason to let this person into the building—avoiding a confrontation with someone you don't know, for example—but it seems you’ve broken what property manager Thomas Usztoke of Douglas Elliman Property Management calls “New York City non-doorman building rule No. 1: Never ever let a stranger enter along with you into an unstaffed building.” Still, it’s unlikely that you’d be found liable for the incident, and even if you were, insurance would probably cover it, our experts say.

“Criminal activity is not generally considered foreseeable and the likelihood that [you were] under an obligation to provide any security is highly speculative,” says real estate attorney Steve Wagner of Wagner Berkow.

However, that doesn’t mean your neighbors won't be angry with you (at least, if this episode of Seinfeld or this episode of Sex and the City are any indication) or that your neighbor won't go to court if the loss from the burglary was significant. In this scenario, your neighbor’s lawyers would probably sue the co-op, as well as anyone potentially liable or covered by insurance, including you, Wagner says. “Lawyers generally do not try to figure out who not to sue,” he says. “They sue everyone and let the court and the other lawyers straighten things out.”

To win, your neighbor would have to prove: first, that you had an obligation to perform some sort of security measure like closing the door directly behind you; second, that you failed to do it; and third, that the burglar was able to enter the building as a “foreseeable result.” You "would normally not have a duty to provide any security,​ [unless your neighbor] were able to show that [you] knew that there was crime in the area and that some security measure was required of [you]--say, through a notice on the door to close it tight or one or more memos from management or the board that there have been burglaries and/or that when you enter the building you should make sure you're not being followed and that the door is closed behind you,” Wagner explains.

One silver lining? “If it is negligence and you are sued and found liable,” says apartment insurance broker Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage“coverage under the personal liability section of your apartment insurance policy should provide defense costs and cover any judgment against you.”

On a practical level, your best bet is to notify your apartment insurance provider that there may be a claim, Wagner says. It’s possible that after your neighbor’s insurer paid her, the company would go after you and the co-op to recover the cost. “Assuming that [you] and the co-op promptly notified their respective insurance companies, it is likely that the insurance companies will handle the claim and that [you] will not have to worry about this matter,” Wagner says.

Another smart move? Talk to your neighbor about the situation, noting the danger that you, too, faced from the burglar’s presence in the building. “Some sympathetic words--without admitting that [you] did anything wrong--may be enough to avoid being sued,” Wagner says. Or, at least, to avoid pulling a Samantha and having to move to the Meatpacking District. 

Related:

Who's allowed to watch my building's security footage?

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Storage locker burglary was the super's fault: who pays?


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