Andy Rogers said two men broken into a unit in 2008 and attacked his client when she came home for lunch. (John Disney/Daily Report)
The insurer for the former owners of a crime-plagued Clarkston apartment complex has paid $2 million to settle premises liability claims brought by a woman who was raped and robbed by two men when she came home for lunch in 2008.
Last year, the same company paid $1.25 million to settle claims brought by the widow of a taxi driver murdered after he came to pick up a fare at the Alden Ridge Apartments, which has been the scene of “numerous incidents of criminal activity” including “murder, burglary, aggravated assault, armed robbery, shooting, stabbing, discharge of firearms, strongarm robbery, theft, battery, assault, terroristic threats, drug dealing, drug possession, loitering, illegal possession of firearms, criminal trespassing and registered sex offenders living on the property,” according to the rape victim’s filings.
“Apparently, they had broken in before she got home—the French doors back in the kitchen had been kicked in,” said Deitch & Rogers partner Andrew Rogers, whose firm represented the plaintiffs in both settlements.
The victim, who was in her late 30s at the time of the attack, left the state with her 10-year-old son within days of the incident, Rogers said.
“The two guys who did it were never caught; that was a concern for her,” he said.
Warner Fox, a partner at Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young, was retained by Zurich N.A., the insurer for the now-bankrupt consortium that owned and managed the complex. Fox said the combination of high crime and low-income tenants who frequently struggled to pay rent made it difficult for the management to keep the property safe.
“Our clients initially bought this property with the hope of turning it around,” said Fox via email. “They spent over $10,000 a unit rehabbing the place. It was to no avail. Because of the area they could not attract desirable tenants.”
The area is “crime-infested,” said Fox, noting that he has several other cases for complexes in the same vicinity.
“My clients were constantly having to evict tenants that would not pay and eventually simply ran out of money to provide security,” said Fox. “In fact, they ran out of money to even evict tenants that weren’t paying. My clients ended up losing their business and a lot of money because of their failed plans.”
Rogers said a co-defendant, VS Management Group, kicked in “a whopping $5,000″ toward the settlement.
“I wasn’t going to let them out without paying anything,” Rogers said.
VS’ attorney, Glenn Bass of Scrudder, Bass, Quillian, Horlock, Taylor & Lazarus, did not respond to requests for comment.
The incident occurred Oct. 17, 2008, when the woman, who as the victim of a sexual assault is not being identified, returned to her apartment from her job at a nearby salon for lunch. She had just put a frozen dinner in the microwave oven when she looked to her side and saw a masked man holding a gun to her head, according to the plaintiff’s portion of the pretrial order.
“She was then dragged upstairs, blindfolded and raped by both men,” it said. “She was forced to have oral and anal sex and was tied up. She was forced to wash up and give them the [personal identity numbers] to her ATM cards.”
The woman was held captive for more than 2½ hours, it said.
Rogers said the woman has required ongoing therapy to deal with her trauma.
In August 2010, Deitch & Rogers filed a personal injury premises liability suit in DeKalb County State Court naming as defendants the Bethany Management Group and four affiliated companies and two corporate officers, as well as VS Management, described in court filings as an “employee-leasing company,” and 10 John Doe defendants.
The five-count suit alleged negligence by failing to keep the premises safe and in proper repair, and for failing to provide adequate security or warn the woman of the risk of burglary and break-in she faced by living on the property. The suit also accused the defendants of maintaining a private nuisance.
The suit was complicated not only by the Bethany defendants’ subsequent bankruptcy, but because the victim also declared bankruptcy after she relocated to another state. That allowed the defendants to move to have the suit removed to federal court in Atlanta, but U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash agreed with the plaintiff and her bankruptcy trustee that the suit should continue in state court. He remanded it to DeKalb County State Court Judge Wayne Purdom last June.
The bankruptcy of the owner-managers before the suit was actually filed added another level of complexity, said Fox, who represented those defendants with firm partner C. Shane Keith.
“This terribly complicated the defense as there was very little investigation that had been done at the time of the incident and we were not able to locate many documents that would support a defense,” Fox said.
“Additionally, most of the prior employees had scattered to the wind and those we could find tended to be hostile because they had been let go when the company failed and were owed substantial back pay.”
The parties took their case to mediation before Nicholas Moraitakis of Moraitakis & Kushel a few months ago and agreed to settle, with the Bethany defendants paying $2 million and VS paying $5,000, Rogers said. Late last month, the settlement was paid and the “deal was sealed,” he said.
Last spring, the Deitch & Rogers firm negotiated a $1.2 million settlement with Fox and his firm to settle claims stemming from the murder of Dane Grobman, who was shot as he sat behind the wheel of his Decatur’s Best Taxi cab at the apartments in 2009.
Fox said such cases may ultimately make it even harder for low-income renters to find lodging.
“In my opinion,” he said, “sooner or later these cases are going to cause real problems for tenants that cannot pay higher rents.”
A tenant paying $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom Buckhead apartment “is owed the same duty by the landlord as someone paying $600 a month for a two-bedroom in an area beset by crime,” Fox said. “Sooner or later these apartments are simply going to be boarded up and it will be harder and harder for low income folks to find decent places to live.”