When is a landlord liable for an injury to a tenant or visitor to the rental property?
To be held responsible for an injury on the premises, the landlord or property manager must have been negligent in maintaining the property, and that negligence must have caused the injury. All of the following must be proven for a landlord to be held liable:
- It was the landlord's responsibility to maintain the portion of premises that caused the accident.
- The landlord failed to take reasonable steps to avert the accident.
- Fixing the problem (or at least giving adequate warnings) would not have been unreasonably expensive or difficult.
- A serious injury was the probable consequence of not fixing the problem (the accident was foreseeable).
- The landlord's failure -- his negligence -- caused the tenant's accident.
- The tenant was genuinely hurt.
For example, if a tenant falls and breaks his ankle on a broken front door step, the landlord will be liable if the tenant can show all of the following:
- It was the landlord's responsibility to maintain the steps (this would usually be the case, because the steps are part of the common area, which is the landlord's responsibility).
- The landlord failed to take reasonable measures to maintain the steps (for days or weeks, not if it had only been broken for minutes).
- A repair would have been easy or inexpensive (fixing a broken step is a minor job).
- The probable result of a broken step is a serious injury, and it was foreseeable (falling on a broken step is highly likely).
- The broken step caused the injury (the tenant must be able to prove that he fell on the step and that the step is where he broke his ankle).
- The tenant is really hurt (the tenant isn't faking it).
A tenant can file a personal injury lawsuit or claim against the landlord's insurance company for medical bills, lost earnings, pain and other physical suffering, permanent physical disability and disfigurement, and emotional distress. A tenant can also sue for damage to personal property, such as a stereo or car, that results from faulty maintenance or unsafe conditions.
How can landlords minimize financial losses related to repairs and maintenance?
You can avoid many problems by maintaining the property in excellent condition. Here's how:
- Use a written checklist to inspect the premises and fix any problems before new tenants move in.
- Encourage tenants to immediately report safety or security problems such as plumbing, heating, broken doors or steps -- whether in the tenant's unit or in common areas such as hallways and parking garages.
- Keep a written log of all tenant complaints and repair requests with details as to how and when problems were fixed.
- Handle urgent repairs as soon as possible -- take care of any safety issues within 24 hours. Keep tenants informed as to when and how the repairs will be made.
- Twice a year, give tenants a checklist on which to report potential safety hazards or maintenance problems that might have been overlooked. Use the same checklist to personally inspect all rental units once a year.
Also, your commitment to repair and maintenance procedures should be clearly set out in the lease or rental agreement.
How can insurance help protect a rental property business?
A well-designed property insurance policy can protect a landlord's rental property from losses caused by many perils, including fire, storms, burglary, and vandalism. (Earthquake and flood insurance are typically insured under separate policies.)
A comprehensive general liability ("CGL") policy provides liability insurance, covering injuries or losses suffered by others as the result of defective conditions on the property. Equally important, liability insurance covers the cost (mostly lawyers' bills) of defending personal injury lawsuits.
Here are some tips on choosing insurance:
- Purchase enough coverage to protect the value of the property and assets.
- Be sure the policy covers not only physical injury but also libel, slander, discrimination, unlawful and retaliatory eviction, and invasion of privacy suffered by tenants and guests.
- Carry liability insurance on all vehicles used for business purposes, including the manager's car or truck if it's used on the job.
If you need more information, The Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred S. Steingold (Nolo), contains a detailed discussion of small business law, including how to insure your rental property.