When Landlords Are Liable (and when they aren’t)
April 1, 2009
Courts’ “reasoning” sometimes defies belief. All too often landlords are found liable for crimes that occur and hazards that exist on their properties. Now we have to assume that courts will rule on the side of the tenant or another injured party, given any possible rationalization to do so. Lawyers also sue the party most likely to be able to pay them. That often means the landlord.
Just as often, though, is that landlords have some liability. One pattern is etched in every lawyer’s and judge’s mind. You are liable when you know or should have known about a dangerous situation and do nothing or too little about it.
Here are the patterns you will want to etch in your mind to protect you against faulty reasoning by courts and judges. It begins with a consciousness of what is most important.
If a tenant calls you about any situation that might remotely be considered dangerous, fix it immediately. The most terrifying call is the one where he says, “I don’t think this is very serious, but. . . .” Don’t finish your dinner, postpone the flight to Hawaii on your cell phone as you drive, and push the speed limit on your way to the property to see to it. If a tenant says something is “not serious,” chances are excellent that the building will collapse with the next strong wind.
Even without tenant warnings, when you do quarterly property inspections, here are things you will want to see to immediately.
Locks to outside doors that don’t work
Insecure outside doors
Insecure windows that can be reached from the ground
Loose things overhead that could fall at any moment
Loose electrical wires that spark, smoke and blow fuses or circuit breakers
Other fire hazards
Those are situations where if you knew about a problem and did not correct it, you can count on paying big bucks to lawyers and to the winner of the lawsuit in a judgment. The cost will skyrocket if one of these situations turns damaging or deadly. Just as important, be sure it gets done right. Doing a poor job is worse than none at all.
If someone should logically expect that a repair or replacement has been done properly, it had better be. When you repair loose steps, people expect that they should be able to use them without extraordinary care. If you put what look to be secure locks in an outside door, people expect that they will work reasonably well to keep an intruder from simply picking the lock.
In fact, you undertake a greater responsibility once you repair a potential problem than if had you done absolutely nothing. In the case of your doing nothing, the people will instinctively take more care. They will be careful going up stairs and block the outside doors to their units. Fool them into thinking they are safe when they are not and you will pay.
Pay attention to things right in front of you. Wiggle, twist, test, stomp and push on any and everything that shouldn’t wiggle, twist, fail a test, creak when stomped on or give when pushed. Repair or get repaired all of them that do. Take the opportunity of defying reason out of the hands of judges and courts and at the same time protect your properties and your tenants.