Fearful that her husband would come into their apartment and hurt their children, Ruth Esther Reyes de Severino “begged” the managers of Penns Grove Gardens in Salem County, N.J., to change the door locks after she was granted a temporary restraining order against him in January 2020, according to a lawsuit filed by her family.
She asked at least five times in the following weeks, her family’s lawyer said, but nothing happened.
On Feb. 5, 2020, Ms. Reyes de Severino’s estranged husband, Eugenio Severino, 54, unlocked the door to Unit 47 with a key, walked in with a knife and fatally stabbed her and their two children, according to the authorities. Then he hanged himself in a nearby park.
Ms. Reyes de Severino’s family contends in their lawsuit, which was filed last month in Salem County Superior Court, that the apartment operators should have done more to prevent the deaths of Ms. Reyes de Severino, 30, and her children, Eurianny, 5, and Eury, 2.
The lawsuit claims negligence, wrongful death, breach of contract and negligent hiring and supervision. The family is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as the $1,207 security deposit that was paid for the unit.
The defendants in the lawsuit — Penns Grove Apartments; Penns Grove Gardens; the Massachusetts-based Housing Management Resources; and Roger J. Gendron — did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment on Wednesday.
Samuel D. Jackson, a lawyer for Ms. Reyes de Severino’s family, said in an interview on Wednesday that “domestic violence is a horrible problem that deserves all of our attention, but this case is about the negligence of the landlord in the apartment complex.”
News of the family’s death underscored the limitations of restraining orders, which experts said can be effective but do not completely prevent instances of domestic violence.
“This case is horrific,” Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University whose research focuses on domestic violence, said in an interview on Wednesday.
She added that the case was “particularly tragic” because New Jersey had implemented several services and programs to help curb domestic violence, which some research shows has increased worldwide during the pandemic.
The marriage of Ms. Reyes de Severino and Mr. Severino “began to sour” in January 2020 “for reason unclear,” according to her family’s lawsuit. Around that time, Mr. Severino “threatened to kill” his wife on “numerous occasions,” it states.
She threw him out of the apartment, where their children also lived. According to the suit, Mr. Severino was not listed as a tenant — only Ms. Reyes de Severino’s signature is on the lease.
“I don’t know if he was named on a lease previously,” Mr. Jackson said. “But the lease that was in effect at the time that she requested the lock change, and that was in effect at the time of the tragic murders, did not include the husband’s name.”
The lawsuit also claims that the apartment operators had failed to abide by a Salem County ordinance that was passed in 2019 requiring all apartment complexes to have security cameras and adequate lighting throughout the property.
Mr. Jackson said the complex did not follow that ordinance, but he declined to specify how.
The ordinance was passed following the death of a man who was shot and killed at Penns Grove Gardens as he tried to intervene in a dispute between two men, according to NJ.com.
Alexis Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami, said in an interview on Wednesday that the killings showed how “if someone is hellbent on hurting someone, there’s no restraining order that’s going to be able to prevent that.”
“You’re really relying on the deterrent threat of that order to prevent an individual from exercising harm,” Dr. Piquero said.
A multifaceted approach, using tools that help judges assess the danger a domestic abuser poses and making sure the violent party is kept away from the victim and taken care of, can also help prevent domestic violence, said Toni Troop, the director of communications and development for Jane Doe Inc, a coalition against sexual assault.
“Cases like this shouldn’t have to happen,” she said.