Landlord Liability for Injuries to Tenants

Pam: Another issue that I'm curious about is what happens when someone who is a tenant gets hurt in a house or an apartment that they're renting?

Barry: Here's the deal. When you sign a lease, it gives you the right to control the property that's within the four corners of your lease. Now if it's a single family home, you for all practical purposes are in control of that whole piece of property. If you live in an apartment where it's a multi-unit building the landlord is still responsible for the common areas of the building, which would include, obviously, things like the stairwells, the garage, the front sidewalk, and so forth. It also would include the mechanical parts that are inside the walls of the apartment.

I'm representing a woman now who was asleep in bed one night, and the ceiling fell in on her. The cause of the ceiling falling in on her was a leak in one of the pipes that was inside the ceiling above her bed. That's something that was her landlord's responsibility even though she was hurt inside her apartment because it was still the landlord's responsibility to maintain the pipes that were inside the walls.

Outside of those particular circumstances where you have the landlord being responsible for things that are common areas inside multi-unit buildings, the only other real exceptions to the situation where a landlord has some responsibility for maintaining the property would be if there are building code issues, or it's something that the landlord promised to repair as a condition of you entering the lease, in other words, when you sign the lease, the landlord says, "By the way, I'll fix those loose stairs before you move in," and they never got fixed. That's a kind of situation where a landlord would still have some responsibility even though you're leasing the property for him.

The last place that you tend to look for sources of liability for landlords for things that go wrong with the property would be the lease. Sometimes the lease will contain very specific clauses that put certain obligations on the landlord to maintain or repair the property that they wouldn't otherwise have. It's a relatively limited set of circumstances where the landlord is going to have some responsibility for injuries that happen to their tenants. The biggest one, obviously, involves multi-unit buildings where a tenant is hurt in the common areas of the building.

Outside of the actual landlord to the building, one of the entities that sometimes you want to take a close look at is the role that property managers have in terms of maintaining the building. Sometimes landlords will have agreements in place with a particular company that manage the building. They really look to the property management company to actually do all of the work that a landlord traditionally does. That may be a situation where you want to take a very close look at the role of the property manager when somebody gets hurt in a rental property.

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