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Rape Victim Wins $2.25M From Landlord

April 13, 2000

Rape Victim Wins $2.25M from Landlord

Jury Finds Apartment Complex Owner Liable for Attack on Premises

By Tessa Jarrett
Daily Journal Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE – Raising the bar for recent premises liability awards, a jury has awarded $2.25 million to a woman who was attacked and raped by two men in the laundry room of the Riverside apartment complex where she lived.

The jury last Thursday found the corporate owner of the Village of La Sierra Apartments liable for the attack because crimes that had previously occurred at the complex were concealed from prospective renters and because management did not take proper security precautions to protect tenants.

Recent premises liability awards have averaged less than $1 million, according to Daily Journal reports. In September, a woman received a $1.6 million settlement for injuries received in a Van Nuys deli parking lot when she caught her heel in a damaged metal grate.

Compensatory Damages

The Riverside County Superior Court jury found Southland LLC liable for negligence, concealment and breach of contract in the awarding of the plaintiff, only known as Darla L., compensatory damages. The damages include money for future psychiatric therapy, said attorney Mark B. Wilson, who represented Darla L.

Both parties have agreed to dismiss the jury and allow Judge Gloria Connor Trask to rule on punitive damages. That phase is set for April 21.

Wilson, a partner in Klein & Wilson in Newport Beach, explained the events leading up to the rape. Darla L. and her husband visited the Village of La Sierra in early February 1998 to inquire about renting an apartment. During that visit, she specifically asked the assistant property manager, Karen Vann, and the person in charge of security, Marvin Vann, if the neighborhood was safe, according to her complaint, Darla L. v. Southland LLC (RIC 318490). The Vanns, both named as defendants along with the property manager, Sandy Kutno, told her the neighborhood was safe. Kutno overheard the conversation, according to the complaint.

Death Threats

When Ventura-based Southland purchased the complex in 1996, the owners knew it was dangerous and hired a special resolution team to evict dangerous tenants, Wilson said. Property managers Cheryl and Alan Barnes were hired to identify and evict drug dealers and other dangerous residents, but were unsuccessful. They quit after receiving death threats, he said.

Crimes including vehicle theft, drug dealing, assault and battery, robbery, indecent exposure, making terrorist threats, burglary, theft and unlawful discharge of weapons had occurred at the 128-unit complex from 1996 until July 28, 1998, the date of the attack, as reported by the Riverside Police Department.

Darla L. signed a one-year lease in 1998 and moved in with her husband and their two children a few days later. Around June, Darla began to learn about some of the criminal activity occurring at the complex, which included a burglary, a knifing, a shooting and death threats against the managers by tenants. She asked Kutno if she could terminate her lease early and move because of safety concerns. Kutno said if she moved, Southland would consider it a breach of contract and place a negative mark on her credit report, according to the complaint.

On July 28, 1998, Darla was inside the laundry room at the complex when two men kidnapped and raped her. The two men were never found. A security door on the laundry room did not work, although Darla and others had complained to management, Wilson said.

Southland was also negligent in its failure to communicate with employees regarding safety issues and criminal activity, Wilson said. Southland president Mindy Cooper-Smith testified that she was unaware of any criminal activity or threats against employees. Southland’s attorney, Lisa McMains of Watten, Discoe & Bassett in Santa Ana, verified the jury’s verdict. Her only comment was to say her client will pursue several post-trial motions, including an appeal. The Vanns and Kutno have been fired, according to testimony at the trial.