Apartment Owners & Landlord’s Liability

An apartment owner (landlord or “lessor”) who leases an apartment can be held legally responsible (“liable”) to the tenant (“lessee”) and the tenant’s guests for dangerous conditions existing in the apartment unit that the landlord does not inform the tenant about and the dangerous condition is not obvious. A landlord generally is not liable to third persons if the dangerous condition in the tenant’s apartment unit that injures the person comes into existence after the tenant takes possession of the premises (that is, the dangerous condition is created by the tenant) and the tenant has not reported it to the landlord or repaired it him- or herself.

However, before leasing the apartment unit to a prospective tenant, the landlord has a duty to inspect the unit to make sure it is reasonably safe from dangerous conditions. The landlord’s duty to inspect the unit before renting it out extends only to those matters and conditions that would have been disclosed by a reasonable inspection. The landlord is not required to take extraordinary measures or make unreasonable expenditures of time and money in trying to discover every potential hazard unless the circumstances justify it. And if a dangerous condition arises in the apartment unit that the tenant promptly reports to the landlord, the landlord must repair it within a reasonable period of time after learning of the dangerous condition.

A landlord has a legal obligation (“duty”) to use due care for the safety of its tenants and their guests to keep those areas of the property under the landlord’s control (the common area) in a reasonably safe condition. For instance, if the landlord leaves a dark water hose across a sidewalk at night and a tenant or guest trips on it, causing him or her to fall and sustain severe injuries, the landlord can be held liable for the resulting injuries and other expenses. A landlord is also required to keep the common area—pool, spa, tennis courts, elevators, stairways, walkways, landscaping, etc.—in a reasonably safe condition and good repair, and can be held liable for injuries caused on the common area by a dangerous condition that the landlord should have repaired or at least warned about.

The owner of an apartment complex can be held liable for the damages resulting from injuries due to:

  • The owner’s promise to make a repair to a faulty condition in the unit but fails to do so in a timely manner

  • The owner (or his or her employee) makes the repair, but does so in a careless (“negligent”) manner

  • The owner knows of a dangerous condition not known or apparent to the tenant at the time the lease is made and neither fixes it or informs the tenant of it

  • The owner retains control of parts of land and areas of the apartment complex that the tenant or his or her guest will use or has the right to use (e.g., common areas, including stairs, hallways, walkways, and laundry room)

  • The owner has violated a safety law

Suppose that the apartment complex has a pool or Jacuzzi that doesn’t have a fence around it or the fence has a broken gate, allowing infants to gain access to the pool or Jacuzzi. If a child drowns in the swimming pool or Jacuzzi because it gained access because of, for instance, a broken gate, the landlord can be held liable for the child’s wrongful death. The landlord or his or her agents must make periodic inspections of the fencing around the pool and Jacuzzi to ensure there are not holes large enough for small children to crawl through and gain access to the pool or Jacuzzi. The landlord must also make periodic inspections to make sure the self-closing and self-latching gate is in proper working order.

Suppose the landlord agrees to let the tenant keep a dog in the apartment, but one day the dog gets out and mauls a small child. Can the landlord be legally responsible (“liable) for the child’s injuries? Generally, the landlord can be held liable for the attacks of his or her tenant’s dog only if the landlord had actual knowledge of the dog’s presence and its vicious nature. This knowledge can be proved by circumstantial evidence. Actual knowledge can be inferred from the circumstances only if, in light of the evidence, such inference is not based on speculation or conjecture. Only where the circumstances are such that the landlord “must have known” and not merely “should have known” will an inference of actual knowledge be permitted. The landlord’s actual knowledge of the dog’s presence and its vicious nature can be proved by circumstantial evidence.

Where the lease or rental agreement expressly prohibits dogs, the landlord can be held liable only if he or she had actual knowledge of the dog’s presence in violation of the lease. The landlord has a right to post a notice giving the tenant three-days notice to get rid of the dog or face eviction for breaching the lease or rental agreement. But the landlord’s mere knowledge that the tenant has a dog, whether it is permitted in the lease or rental agreement or the tenant brings in a dog in violation of the lease and the landlord discovers the dog’s presence at a later time, is not sufficient in and of itself to make the landlord responsible for injuries and deaths inflicted by the dog. The landlord must also have actual notice that the dog is vicious (has “dangerous propensities”).

Where a landlord knows about the presence of a dog from the initial rental agreement, but never visits the property, never sees the dog acting in a vicious manner, and never receives any complaints about the dog, the landlord is usually not liable for any injuries caused by the dog. But where the landlord regularly visits the property, sees the dog’s vicious conduct, and receives complaints about the dog’s threatening behavior, the landlord has a duty to take affirmative steps to remove the danger; if the landlord fails to do anything, he or she can be held liable for injuries or deaths caused by the dog.

In a month-to-month tenancy, the landlord has the right to require the tenant to get rid of the vicious dog or face termination of his or her rental agreement. By virtue of the landlord’s right to terminate the lease, the landlord has sufficient control over the premises such as to bring the case within an exception to the general rule of nonliability. As noted above, in some cases, the landlord may be required to give the dog’s owner or post on the owner-tenant’s door a three-day notice to get rid of the dog or the landlord will begin eviction proceedings.

When a landlord discovers or consents to a tenant having a vicious dog in the apartment, he or she may be liable under certain circumstances. First, if the lease or rental agreement forbids dogs, the landlord has the duty to inform the tenant that he or she is in breach of the lease or rental agreement, and to get rid of the dog, If, on the other hand, the lease or rental agreement specifically permits the presence of the dog, the landlord may be required to tell the tenant to get rid of the vicious dog and if he or she does not, the landlord will take steps to evict the tenant or refuse to renew the month-to-month tenancy. However, even where the landlord has the right to terminate the lease, the landlord can be held liable for injuries caused by the dog only if, prior to the injuries, the landlord knew of the animal’s presence and its dangerous nature.

In certain circumstances the landlord can be held liable for injuries to tenants or their guests resulting from altercations with other tenants. A landlord has a duty to keep its tenants reasonably safe from assaults by other tenants. Suppose one tenant is verbally abusive towards and physically assaultive to another tenant every time he or she sees the other tenant. The victimized tenant reports the verbal threats and physical assaults to the managers on at least six occasions, and although the apartment managers assure the victimized tenant that they will “take care of the problem,” nothing is ever done. Finally one day the other tenant grabs the victimized tenant by the hair and throws her down the stairs, causing severe injuries. Can the landlord be held liable for the injuries?

Yes. In one case, the landlord knew of the physical and verbal assaults and danger posed by the fellow tenant to the victimized tenant but did nothing to stop them, despite assurances that the managers would “do something about it.” The landlord was aware of verbal taunting and the criminal assaults and therefore had a duty to take action to prevent them from recurring in the future. One thing the landlord could have done was to install a security camera focused on the staircase where most of the tenant’s aggression took place. This might have inhibited the tenant’s belligerent conduct towards the other tenant. Or the landlord should have taken steps to evict the belligerent tenant from the apartment. The managers of the apartment complex argued that the belligerent tenant might have become even more hostile of they attempted to reason with victimized tenant. The court said that this provided all the more reason to evict the belligerent tenant from the premises.

Out of the generic obligations owed by landowners to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition, the law of negligence in the landlord-tenant context has evolved to impose a duty of reasonable care on the owner of an apartment building to protect its tenants from foreseeable third party criminal assaults. Suppose a tenant is assaulted or raped on the apartment’s grounds by an unidentified criminal. Can the landlord be held liable to the tenant for his or her injuries? The test is one of “foreseeability,” that is, whether the landlord could have reasonably anticipated that a tenant would have been raped, robbed, or assault on the apartment’s grounds. One major consideration is whether this was the first time such a thing had occurred or whether there had been prior similar incidents on the apartment grounds. Where the risk of criminal assaults or other illegal conduct is great, and the cost to the landlord to prevent such attacks is relatively minor, the landlord has a duty to take preventive measures. Thus, in one case, where there had been three vicious criminal assaults in the common areas within two years of the plaintiff’s being shot during a carjacking, the court held that there was a reasonably foreseeable risk of violent criminal assaults on the property to as to impose on the landlords a duty to provide comparatively minimal security measures. On the other hand, where the risk of illegal activity is minor, and the cost to the landlord is great, the landlord may not be required to implement measures to protect the tenants.

A lawsuit for personal injuries can also be based on the fraud or misrepresentation of the landlord or his or her employees, such as the apartment’s manager or the leasing agent. For example, where the landlord or his or her rental agent represents to a prospective tenant that the property is safe and there is no crime in the area, which representations were false and made with the intent of deceiving the prospective tenant into renting an apartment, and inducing the prospective tenant’s reliance thereon. The maker of a fraudulent misrepresentation is subject to liability for the medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering and any other damages the tenants sustains because he or she justifiably relied upon the truth of the matter represented, if his or her reliance is a substantial factor in determining the course of conduct that results in his or her injuries and accompanying losses.

One issue that landlords use to protect themselves from liability in cases involving criminal conduct by third persons is that the landlord’s negligent conduct was not a cause of the tenant’s injuries. An injured tenant must prove that the carelessness (or “negligence”) of the landlord was a “substantial factor” in causing their injuries. Landlords will argue that nothing it could have done would have prevented the assault or rape. Many cases involving assaults in apartment complexes have held that the assailant could have had access to the apartment in a number of ways and hidden in any number of places, waiting for his or her victim. For example, in one case the court held that the tenant could not show that the landlord’s failure to provide increased daytime security at each entrance gate or functioning locked gates was a substantial factor in causing her injures. In legal terms, the tenant was unable to prove that it was “more probable than not” that additional security precautions would have prevented the attack.

In one case, the plaintiff-tenant contended that her injuries could have been avoided if the landlord had hired roving security guards to patrol the entire premises during the day as well as at night. The court however, found that aside from the inordinate expense of providing such security for a 28-building apartment complex, the argument was entirely speculative, as assaults and other crimes can occur despite the maintenance of the highest level of security. Despite her expert witness’s speculation, the court held that the tenant could not show that roving guards would have encountered her assailants or prevented the attack. The court noted that “a 300-unit, 28-building apartment complex contains many rooms, entries, garages, and other spaces where a rape could take place despite extensive security patrols.”

If you have been injured or a loved one killed in an apartment-related accident, you should contact an experienced personal injury law firm as soon as possible. The law firm may want to send its own investigator to the scene of the accident to inspect it and take pictures of the accident site and any dangerous condition that caused or contributed to the accident before the conditions are changed. The attorney or his or her investigator will want to talk to any witnesses to the accident while the facts are still fresh in their minds.

An experienced personal injury law firm can also help with seeing to it that you obtain appropriate and thorough medical care for your physical, emotional, and psychological injuries suffered as a result of the accident. They can also do everything possible to ensure that you obtain full compensation for your medical expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish, property damage, lost wages, psychological injuries, loss of society and comfort (“loss of consortium”), and all of your other injuries and damages.

Call today and speak with one of our lawyers for a free consultation:  310.882.6810.  

We understand the physical, financial, emotional, and psychological toll a serious injury or death that an apartment-related injury or death can take on the injured victim and his or her family. Put the experience, the track record of success and the reputation of success on your side.  Let us fight for your rights.

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