By Robert L. Cain
George Becker fell against a shower door in his apartment, breaking the door and seriously cutting him. It turns out the door was untempered glass that had been installed by the apartment’s previous owner. The new owner had no way of knowing that the glass was not safe, but that didn’t matter. The landlord was held liable under the “strict liability” a precept of common law.
A tenant sued landlord Jerry Warshaw was sued for $1 million by because she was raped by a man who broke into her Atlanta apartment. She contended that Warshaw should have warned her that the neighborhood was a high-crime area.
Karma and the fates weren’t done with Warshaw. He was threatened with a second lawsuit because a prospective tenant was raped by a man who wandered in off the street while she was looking at an apartment. He also faced four more lawsuits from tenants victimized by other crimes.
“This really scares me,” said Jerry Warshaw, facing at least six lawsuits. Ya think?
Plaza Realty Co. and Douglas Realty Corp of New York lost a $44.5 million liability suit brought by a woman who was shot and paralyzed by her jilted boyfriend in the lobby of Plaza’s and Douglas’s apartment building.
A tenant suffered serious back injuries when a new couch with a defective strap collapsed while she was sitting on it. The landlord had furnished the apartment, so he was held liable
Tenants in New York were injured when a kitchen cabinet fell on them. They sued and the court ruled that the landlord was better qualified to inspect and know what repairs were needed, makes a profit from the units and is “better able to spread the loss,” so he had to pay.
A tenant of John Gil’s in San Diego sued him because the tenant was assaulted by two other tenants’ monkey. First time around, the landlords won, but on appeal lost the case. Eventually the two parties settled out of court. Angela Jendralski, the tenant and complaining party, said she complained about “screeching, screaming, cheeping, howling, squealing, and cooing” sounds emanating from her neighboring apartment. She was attacked during a visit to the apartment where she saw “hundreds” of birds, as well as squirrels and a monkey. Pets weren’t allowed in the apartments.
It’s enough to make just about any landlord stop and think. Not only, do I want to be in this business, but can I ever be immune to all the lawsuits in this increasingly litigious society? If a landlord knew, should have known, or could have known, he or she can be liable for injuries and damages and so can never be immune.
Landlords are responsible in the same ways as employers in workman’s compensation cases and merchants and manufacturers in product liability cases. It doesn’t matter who is at fault; the landlord pays. And that holds true even if the landlord wins a court case. He or she has to pay the lawyer and go through the stress of the court proceedings.
Landlords are liable under five different situations:
- Damages caused by undisclosed defects in the property;
- Breach of “implied warranty of habitability. (The landlord stated tacitly that the unit was fit to live in because he rented it.)
- Breach of the covenant to repair. (That’s included in the rental agreement that both the landlord and tenant signed when the unit was rented. If there was no rental agreement, every state law provides a “covenant to repair.”)
- Negligent repairs, that is, it was “fixed,” but not fixed properly.
- Damage caused by defects in “common areas.”
Insurance companies aren’t much help, either. It may be cheaper to pay than to go to the expense of taking the case through the courts and possibly having to pay a damage judgment, even in the event of outright fraud. That puts the landlord in the position of the “bad guy” because the insurance company paid off on a claim that had little or no merit and will probably raise the landlord’s liability insurance premium.
Plus, that attitude encourages tenants who have their beady eyes peeled on everything that might result in something for nothing.
It also encourages tenants to take no responsibility for themselves or their surroundings. Normally, that would be no one’s business, except that tenants simply don’t say anything about hazardous situations before or after a tenant or guest is injured. The first a landlord learns of the problem is a letter from a lawyer.
Here are seven things to do to lower the possibility of liability lawsuits and of injury to tenants and guests.
- Inspect the property regularly. At least every three months, do a walkthrough with a checklist looking for things to fix. Of course, then fix them.
- If tenants pay rent in person, have them sign a statement when they pay that there are no repairs to be made in their units. If they pay online through a rent-pay system such as rentpayment.com or paylease.com, a checkbox can be added that allows for them to report any repair issues or lack of them.
- Never, ever promise or advertise that the property is “safe,” “secure,” “in perfect condition,” or anything that might be construed as claiming any of those adjectives or descriptions.
- Immediately, as within a few hours, respond to tenant observations of dangerous situations.
- Buy liability insurance.
- Carefully screen tenants. Ask a prospective tenant if he or she has ever sued a landlord. If he or she has, the explanation had better be good. Also get in touch with the landlord who was sued.
- Document every repair as to the repair completed and the response time from notification to completion.
There are no foolproof solutions. There is no defense except to keep properties as safe and habitable as possible. If you knew, should have known, or could have known, the courts may rule against you. In some cases, there may be little likelihood that you could have known, but that doesn’t matter. Remember, the New York court ruled against the landlord because he was “better able to spread the loss.”