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Appeals court says suit against landlord stands

June 22, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has reversed a Berkeley County judge's decision to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges a mobile home park owner was partly responsible for a woman's murder because he forced her to mow her lawn.

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Janet Leigh Hough died after her estranged husband, William Hough, shot her twice with a shotgun on Aug. 7, 1994, while she mowed the lawn in front of her mobile home near Little Georgetown, according to court records.

He then turned the weapon on himself.

A lawsuit filed on the behalf of Janet Leigh Hough's two children contends that William Hough's cousin, John B. Myrick, shares some of the blame because he threatened to evict her if she didn't mow her lawn despite her claims that doing so would place her life in danger, according to court records.

"Is (Myrick) entirely responsible? Of course not. But we don't live on islands, and there is a legal duty not to place people in harm's way," said Martinsburg attorney Laura Rose, who filed the suit against Myrick and William Hough's estate.

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Neither Myrick nor his attorney could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Myrick owned the mobile home park and rented to William Hough a mobile home that was directly across from Janet Hough's home, according to court records. William Hough rented the mobile home after a Berkeley County magistrate issued a July 18, 1994, protective order that forced William Hough out of his home, according to court records.

The lawsuit alleges Janet Hough told Myrick she was "terrified" of her husband and was concerned for her safety, but Myrick told her she would have to move out of her home if she didn't mow the lawn.

Berkeley County Circuit Judge David Sanders dismissed the lawsuit in September 1997 and called it a "stretch of the imagination" that Myrick could be responsible because he required a tenant to mow the lawn, according to court records

The state Supreme Court of Appeals reversed that dismissal Friday and ordered the case to be heard in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

"A landlord does not have a duty to protect a tenant from the criminal activity of a third party. However, there are circumstances which may give rise to such a duty, and these circumstances will be determined by this Court on a case-by-case basis," according to the appeals court decision.

No court date has been set for the case to be heard.

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