Landlord's Liability for Injuries to Tenants and Guests




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Landlord’s Liability For Injuries to Tenants and Guests

 

Traditionally, in the landlord-tenant relationship, a tenant was responsible to maintain, repair, and keep safe residential premises. A landlord had no duty to make the premises safe; the rule that carried the day was caveat lessee, or “let the lessee beware.”

Modern rules, however, impose certain obligations on landlords and failure to live up to these obligations will make landlords liable for injuries caused to tenants or other injured parties. This shift is partially a product of the mass movement of rural populations to urban areas, making tenants a much more substantial population and partly due to shifting ideas in society from unbridled capitalism of the 1800s to an approach more concerned about consumers’ rights today.[1]

            This presentation will focus on six cases in which landlords can be held liable for injuries to tenants or other parties on the premises. A landlord can liable for injuries caused by:

(1) latent defects;

(2) defects in common areas;

(3) public use of premises;

(4) defects in furnished short-term residences;

(5) defects due to negligent repairs; and

(6) landlord’s failure to effectively repair the premises when he had a legal responsibility to do so.

Latent Defects

            A landlord leasing dwellings and residential premises to tenants is strictly liable for injuries resulting from latent defects in the premises that exist at the time a lease is executed.[2] Latent defects are concealed and dangerous conditions that a landlord knows, or should know, about. Additionally, they are conditions that would not ordinarily be discovered by a tenant during a reasonable inspection. Latent defects typically involve faulty plumbing, malfunctioning electrical wiring and damaged heating and cooling mechanisms.

            The landlord is not liable if the tenant was aware of the latent defect before the injury,[3] if the defect becomes obvious (in other words, no longer latent) before the injury and when the landlord discloses the defect (even if the disclosure was after the lease commenced).

Common Areas

            A landlord may be liable in tort for injuries caused by conditions in the common areas shared by all tenants in a building.[4] Landlords typically retain possession and control of common areas such as stairways, lobbies, halls, passageways, elevators and similar building facilities that are for the common use of all tenants, and so must exercise a duty of ordinary care. This duty of ordinary care means that a landlord must maintain these common areas in a reasonably safe condition for safe use by all tenants. Liability attaches if the landlord is negligent in failing to maintain these common areas. It does not mean that the landlord will be liable for every injury in common areas. For example, if one tenant drops a banana peel in a stairwell and another slips on it five minutes later, it’s unlikely that liability will attach since landlords cannot be expected to inspect their property for safety every five minutes. However, if the banana peel was sitting there for a week, it’s much more likely that a court would consider the landlord’s failure to remove the hazard to be unreasonable and therefore negligent.

Public Use of Premises

            If a tenant leases premises for a public use, such as a fair, athletic event, or concert, a landlord may be liable for injuries sustained by members of the public visiting the premises due to the landlord’s inability to keep the premises safe. To be liable, landlords are liable for injuries if at the time of the lease, the landlord knows or should know of a dangerous condition and the landlord knows that the tenant intends to admit members of the public to the premises and nonetheless fails to repair the condition

Furnished Short-Term Residences

            A landlord who leases a fully-furnished residence for a short time is liable for tenant injuries which occurred during this short-term lease. This is a strict duty and a landlord is liable even if the defect is hidden if the landlord could have discovered the defect by reasonable inspection and maintenance. The landlord has an affirmative responsibility to keep these areas safe because a short-term tenant is unlikely to be able to inspect and discover defects.[5] The classic example here is the hotel room. The hotel is liable for dangerous conditions that occur in hotel rooms (or in hotel common areas) that the hotel management reasonably should have discovered and fixed in the ordinary course of inspection and maintenance of the premises.

Negligent Landlord Repairs

            If a landlord does make repairs to leased premises, she must do so competently. A landlord is, therefore, liable for any injuries caused by repairs that are done negligently. A tenant can recover for his injuries if the repairs resulted in an increased danger that was unknown to the tenant or if the landlord’s repairs provided him with a deceptive appearance of safety.[6] [7] For example, if the landlord undertook to repair faulty wiring in a tenant’s apartment and failed to properly do so, and such failure caused the fire that damaged the tenant’s property, the landlord will be liable for the damage even if it was not her responsibility to fix the wiring in the first place. By undertaking to do so, the landlord caused the tenant to justifiably rely on the landlord’s work and may have caused the client to address the problem herself.

This also applies when the landlord hired an independent contractor to make repairs, and such contractor did so negligently.

Landlord’s Duty to Repair

            A landlord is not obligated to repair every defect in leased premises. However, duties to repair may arise by contract or maybe required by local law. When any such duty does arise, the landlord must acquit such duty competently. Failure to do so that causes injury will render the landlord liable for such injuries.

 

These six scenarios in which the landlord is liable for injuries allow tenants and guests remedies for injuries that are the landlord’s fault. They represent a departure from the common law rule of caveat lessee but are critical to protect the landlord-tenant relationship that is so ubiquitous in urban American society today.



Footnotes:

[1] Irma Merrill, Landlord Liability for Crimes Committed by Third Parties Against Tenants on the Premises, 38 Vand. L. Rev. 431, (1985).

[2] Becker v. IRM Corp., 38 Cal. 3d 454, 698 P.2d 116, 213 Cal. Rptr. 213, 1985 Cal. LEXIS 270, 48 A.L.R.4th 601, CCH Prod. Liab. Rep. P10,522 (Cal. Apr. 29, 1985)

[3] Stephen Maddex, Propst v. McNeill: Arkansas Landlord-Tenant Law, A Time for Change, 51 Ark. L. Rev. 575, (1998).

[4] Gradjelick v. Hance, 646 N.W.2d 225

[5] Ingalls v. Hobbs, 31 N.E. 286 (Mass. 1892); Young v. Povich, 116 A. 26 (Me. 1922).

[6] True v. Fath Bluegrass Manor Apartment, 358 S.W.3d 23, 25-27 (Ky. Ct. App. 2011).

[7] Rietze v. Williams, 458 S.W.2d 613, 1970 Ky. LEXIS 179 (Ky. 1970).