A landlord’s duty to screen roommates and the welfare check conducted by Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department are at the heart of a lawsuit filed March 2 by families of the victims of Elliot Rodger’s deadly rampage in Isla Vista.
Two law firms representing families of three victims — two roommates and a visitor bludgeoned to death by Rodger at the Capri Apartments on the afternoon of May 23, 2014 — filed their civil suit in a Federal District Court in Los Angeles seeking unspecified damages.
The suit names as defendants the county of Santa Barbara; the Sheriff’s Department; Capri Apartments, where Rodger had lived; and Texas-based apartment management firm Asset Campus Housing. Asset Campus Housing declined to comment.
The causes of action include violations of due process and negligence and in the case of Capri Apartments and Asset Campus Housing, the case will likely revolve around whether Rodger’s behavior in the months before his rampage warranted a warning to prospective roommates.
Attorney Scott Campbell, managing partner of Rogers Sheffield & Campbell, said that the duty of the landlord or apartment manager is likely to face a “reasonable behavior standard.”
In other words, he said, if the case goes to trial the question likely before the jury is whether Rodger’s behavior was so erratic that it warranted some action by the landlord or apartment owner.
“The theory is that if you are aware there is a danger, it could be a liability,” he said. The analogy, he added, would be if an apartment owner knew security lights were out on a porch and didn’t do anything to replace them. Campbell is not involved in the case.
But negligence cases can be hard to prove, said Marcus Kocmur, a partner at Buynak, Fauver, Archbald & Spray in Santa Barbara. He cited one California case where a landlord was renting a mobile home to a gang member and the courts ruled that didn’t create liability when a gang fight later occurred, he said.
However, he added, because Asset Campus Housing is operating “a roommate matching service” it “creates a unique situation for this type of housing.” Kocmur, who also is not involved in the case said the outcome could “depend on disclaimers in the terms and conditions” of the rental agreement the roommates signed.
In their suit, plaintiff attorneys Becker Law Group and McNicholas & McNicholas allege that Rodger had a history of violence and prejudice against roommates and state he was moved several times in an effort to find a better match.
The lawsuit claims that the parents of David Wang, James Hong and George Chen should have been warned by Capri and Asset that Rodger represented a risk.
Roommates “Hong and Wang trusted that Capri had conducted a reasonable investigation into Rodger before assigning him as their roommate, and they trusted that he had been vetted as safe and appropriate,” the lawsuit states.
In a phone interview with the Business Times, plaintiff attorney Todd Becker said Rodger “was not fit to be a roommate of anybody.” He added that Rodger had “seven prior roommates and had disputes with all of them. The bottom line is that with a minimal amount of effort, the apartment complex and management company would have discovered he was unfit.”
The lawsuit also alleges officers who conducted the welfare check in April 2014 failed to contact the roommates or warn them that Rodger’s parents were concerned about his Web postings. The suit also alleges the officers failed to check gun ownership records to see if Rodger owned any guns.
The suit alleges the county and sheriff’s departments maintained a policy of “deliberate indifference” when conducting welfare checks. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department has said it won’t discuss the case but issued a statement expressing sympathy for the victims of the tragedy.
In the case of Rodger, family members requested the welfare check after they viewed disturbing and violent materials Rodger had posted on the Web.
The lawsuit was filed just one week after the Sheriff’s Department released its own report on the shootings that provided additional details about the welfare check, which involved a team of six personnel, including four deputies, a trainee and a UC Santa Barbara patrol officer.
The report also described a January 2014 dispute between Rodger and roommate Hong over the alleged theft of candles as well as the grisly murders of Wang, Hong and Chen, a visitor who happened by the apartment and was stabbed to death.
“One of our main issues is to fix the system,” Becker said. “This has happened in so many places around the country. We need changes in how things are done.”