Landlords are not automatically liable for all injuries tenants suffer at their rentals. In general, landlords are responsible for tenants’ injuries only when the landlord’s action (or inaction) was careless and caused or contributed to the injury. (Sometimes landlords are also liable for injuries to guests or other people visiting the rental.)
Under the legal concept of negligence, when a landlord’s behavior is the proximate cause of a tenant’s injury, a court can hold the landlord liable to the tenant—even if the landlord didn’t intend any harm. An act (or failure to act) is the proximate cause when an ordinary person could reasonably foresee that it would cause the injury in question.
Control over dangerous condition. In most cases, landlords will be responsible for tenant injuries when they are legally obligated to maintain and repair the injury-causing factor. For example, if a tenant is injured after falling on a broken stair in a common area that’s supposed to be maintained by the landlord, the landlord is likely liable.
Knowledge of a hidden danger. Landlords must notify tenants about dangerous conditions that aren’t obvious or are hidden, such as an uneven floor or a basement access door located under a rug.
Foreseeability of accident. When a reasonable person could’ve foreseen that something could cause injury, such as a loose handrail on a stairway under the landlord’s control, the landlord must take measures to prevent injuries (for example, direct tenants to use an alternate staircase pending repairs). However, landlords won’t be held responsible for freak accidents. For example, it’s unlikely that disrepair such as peeling wallpaper would cause injury, but if it did, chances are that the landlord won’t be responsible.
Cost and feasibility of reducing danger. Courts are likely to hold landlords responsible for tenant injuries when a simple, reasonably priced precaution could’ve eliminated the dangerous condition. For example, painting a bright stripe on an unexpected step up to a patio is a simple measure a landlord could take to prevent a tenant from tripping. A court could find that the landlord was negligent because the risk of harm so greatly outweighed the burden of mitigation.
Likelihood of serious injury. When there’s a great risk of serious injury, it’s likely that a court would require a landlord to fix the situation as soon as possible, no matter the difficulty of the repair. For example, a raised deck with rotten support beams must be removed, replaced, or at least marked “off limits”—regardless of the cost—because the rot creates a high likelihood of collapse that could lead to catastrophic injuries.
Failure to take reasonable steps to prevent accident. The law doesn’t require landlords to take drastic measures to protect tenants from every condition that possibly poses a risk. Rather, landlords should exercise reasonable care to prevent tenant injuries (except when dealing with tenants who are minors—see sidebar). Reasonable care is the amount of care an average, competent landlord would use when faced with similar circumstances. For example, a landlord who ignores a broken step for months is likely not taking reasonable measures to prevent injury to tenants. However, a landlord who routinely checks staircases and hasn’t seen or been notified of the broken step might successfully argue that his inspection met his duty of keeping the staircases safe.
Actual cause of injury. Tenants must demonstrate that their injuries resulted from the landlord’s carelessness, not some other reason. Sometimes, the link between the landlord’s actions and the injury is obvious, such as when a perfectly healthy tenant slips and breaks her leg on a freshly waxed floor. Other times, the connection isn’t so clear, such as when a soccer player returning to his rental from a rough game stumbles slightly on a broken stair and claims the landlord’s failure to fix the step caused his sprained ankle. The landlord might argue that the rough soccer game was the proximate cause of the tenant’s sprain, even though the tenant claims it was the step.
Even when a landlord’s behavior meets all the elements of negligence, sometimes the tenant’s own behavior also plays a role in causing the injury. For example, if the tripping tenant fell when his untied shoe lace got caught in the part of the step that was sticking up, a court could find that he was negligent in not tying his shoes and is partially to blame for his own injuries.
In situations where tenants are partially to blame for their injuries, courts use one either a comparative or contributory fault approach to allocate liability:
Under the legal theory of negligence per se, courts automatically conclude that landlords who violate certain laws have acted negligently. Put another way, because the landlord broke the law, injured tenants don’t have to establish that their landlord acted unreasonably. Rather, tenants who sue their landlords under a theory of negligence per se must prove that:
Because many states and cities pass laws directly relating to the health and safety of tenants in rental properties, it’s not unusual for courts to find a landlord’s behavior negligent per se. For example, many states require landlords to install and maintain smoke detectors in rentals. When tenants are injured by fire in a rental subject to smoke detector laws, the court will likely find a landlord’s failure to follow the law negligent per se if a detector could’ve prevented the tenants’ injuries.
In almost every state, landlords have the duty to provide livable rentals—even if they don’t promise to do so in the lease or rental agreement. (The sole exception is Arkansas, though local ordinances can step in and require landlords to provide fit rentals.) This duty (the implied warranty of habitability) means that tenants have the right to living conditions that meet basic health and safety standards.
Although state habitability laws vary, landlords who fail to follow their state’s bare minimum health and safety standards are likely responsible for injuries their tenants suffer as a result. Injured tenants seeking to hold their landlord liable would have to demonstrate that their landlord violated the implied warranty of habitability—perhaps by showing that the city had cited the landlord for code violations or other tenants had complained to a local health and safety board—and that the inferior living conditions caused their injuries.
Landlords generally aren’t responsible for injuries to tenants caused by third parties. However, when a landlord has notice of criminal activity and doesn’t take reasonable measures to prevent harm to tenants, a court might find the landlord liable when a tenant is injured. For example, if a landlord denies a tenant’s request to put stronger locks on the door after a series of break-ins, and the tenant is later injured during a burglary that new locks could’ve prevented, a court could find the landlord at least partially responsible for the tenant’s injuries. Similarly, landlords could be liable for failing to take measures to prevent criminal activity that could lead to injuries—such as lighting an unsecured parking lot in an area where nighttime muggings are common.
If you’ve been injured at your rental and believe your landlord caused your injuries, consider consulting a local personal injury attorney to discuss what happened. An attorney can evaluate the situation and advise you whether filing a lawsuit against your landlord is the best course of action.