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35.4 Landlord’s Tort Liability

Learning Objectives

  1. State the general common-law rule as to the liability of the landlord for injuries occurring on the leased premises.
  2. State the exceptions to the general rule, and explain the modern trend toward increased liability of the landlord.

In Chapter 33 "The Nature and Regulation of Real Estate and the Environment", we discussed the tort liability of the owner or occupier of real estate to persons injured on the property. As a general rule, when injury occurs on premises rented to a tenant, it is the tenant—an occupier—who is liable. The reason for this rule seems clear: The landlord has given up all but a reversionary interest in the property; he has no further control over the premises. Indeed, he is not even permitted on the property without the tenant’s permission. But over the years, certain exceptions have developed to the rule that the landlord is not liable. The primary reason for this change is the recognition that the landlord is better able to pay for repairs to his property than his relatively poorer tenants and that he has ultimate control over the general conditions surrounding the apartment or apartment complex.

Exceptions to the General Rule

Hidden Dangers Known to Landlord

The landlord is liable to the tenant, her family, or guests who are injured by hidden and dangerous conditions that the landlord knew about or should have known about but failed to disclose to the tenant.

Dangers to People off the Premises

The landlord is liable to people injured outside the property by defects that existed when the lease was signed. Simone rents a dilapidated house and agrees with the landlord to keep the building repaired. She neglects to hire contractors to repair the cracked and sagging wall on the street. The building soon collapses, crushing several automobiles parked alongside. Simone can be held responsible and so can the landlord; the tenant’s contractual agreement to maintain the property is not sufficient to shift the liability away from the landlord. In a few cases, the landlord has even been held liable for activities carried on by the tenant, but only because he knew about them when the lease was signed and should have known that the injuries were probable results.

Premises Leased for Admitting the Public

A landlord is responsible for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on property to be used by the public if the danger existed when the lease was made. Thus an uneven floor that might cause people to trip or a defective elevator that stops a few inches below the level of each floor would be sufficiently dangerous to pin liability on the landlord.

Landlord Retaining Control of Premises

Frequently, a landlord will retain control over certain areas of the property—for example, the common hallways and stairs in an apartment building. When injuries occur as a result of faulty and careless maintenance of these areas, the landlord will be responsible. In more than half the states, the landlord is liable for failure to remove ice and snow from a common walkway and stairs at the entrance. In one case, the tenant even recovered damages for a broken hip caused when she fell in fright from seeing a mouse that jumped out of her stove; she successfully charged the landlord with negligence in failing to prevent mice from entering the dwelling in areas under his control.

Faulty Repair of Premises

Landlords often have a duty to repair the premises. The duty may be statutory or may rest on an agreement in the lease. In either case, the landlord will be liable to a tenant or others for injury resulting from defects that should have been repaired. No less important, a landlord will be liable even if he has no duty to repair but negligently makes repairs that themselves turn out to be dangerous.

Key Takeaway

At common law, injuries taking place on leased premises were the responsibility of the tenant. There were notable exceptions, including situations where hidden dangers were known to the landlord but not the tenant, where the premises’ condition caused injury to people off the premises, or where faulty repairs caused the injuries. The modern trend is to adopt general negligence principles to determine landlord liability. Thus where the landlord does not use reasonable care and subjects others to an unreasonable risk of harm, there may be liability for the landlord. This varies from state to state.

Exercises

  1. What was the basic logic of the common law in having tenants be responsible for all injuries that took place on leased premises?
  2. Does the modern trend of applying general negligence principles to landlords make more sense? Explain your answer.