When a Landlord Can Be Held Liable for Tenant Injuries

Whether a landlord is liable for an injury to a tenant depends heavily on the facts of the situation.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by David Goguen , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Landlords aren't automatically liable when someone gets injured at their rental. Instead, the general rule is that landlords are responsible for tenants' injuries only when the landlord's action (or inaction) causes or contributes to the injury. (In some situations, a landlord can also be liable for injuries to guests or other people visiting the rental.)

Let's dive into the details on when a landlord might be found liable for a tenant's injuries.

How Can You Determine If a Landlord Was Negligent?

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 when 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 that occurred.

In a personal injury lawsuit, the court will evaluate the following factors to determine if a landlord was negligent.

  • Who has control over the 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.
  • The landlord's knowledge of and warnings about 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.
  • How foreseeable the accident was. When a reasonable person could've foreseen that the conditions at the rental could cause injury, the landlord must take measures to prevent injuries. For example, a landlord should direct tenants to use an alternate staircase until repairs are made to a loose handrail in a stairway under the landlord's control. On the other hand, 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.
  • The burden 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. On the other hand, a landlord wouldn't be expected to fix a situation that posed a very low risk if it would be exorbitantly expensive to do so.
  • How likely it was that a serious injury could occur. 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.
  • Whether the landlord took reasonable steps to prevent an 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.
  • What actually caused the 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.

When the Tenant Might Have Played a Part In Their Own Injury

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 shoelace 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 either a comparative or contributory fault approach to allocate liability.

Comparative Fault

A court in a state that uses a comparative fault approach to liability will assign a percentage of responsibility to each party. For example, a court might assign 55% of fault to the tripping tenant and 45% to the landlord if it finds that the tenant's untied shoelaces contributed to his injuries more than the landlord's improper repairs.

Allocating responsibility can drastically affect the tenant's potential monetary award: When the tenant's responsibility is greater than the landlord's, courts won't order any monetary award to the tenant if the state follows a "modified comparative fault" system. In states that follow "pure comparative fault," a proportionate award is possible regardless of the tenant's share of fault.

Contributory Fault

The contributory fault approach to liability can be harsh: When the court finds that the tenant's actions contributed in any way—even just one percent—to the injuries, it won't order the landlord to pay any money. Just a handful of states still use the contributory fault system.

When a Landlord's Behavior Is Negligent Per Se

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:

  • the landlord violated a law (the law in question usually must relate to safety, for example, a criminal statute or a municipal health ordinance)
  • the purpose of the law is to protect tenants or the public from a certain danger
  • the tenant's injuries are of the type the law was supposed to protect people from, and
  • the landlord's violation caused (either directly or indirectly, depending on the circumstances) the tenant's injuries.

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.

What Happens When a Landlord Doesn't Provide a Fit and Habitable Rental

Every state requires landlords to provide livable rentals—rentals that meet basic health and safety standards. This obligation is called the "implied warranty of habitability" because it applies even when the lease or rental agreement doesn't mention the duty or tries to waive the duty. Many cities also have ordinances requiring landlords to provide fit rentals.

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.

When a Landlord Might Be Liable for Criminal Acts

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. For example, a landlord who's aware of a series of nighttime muggings in the rental's parking lot would have a duty to take reasonable measures—such as installing adequate lighting—to discourage the criminal activity. If the landlord fails to take reasonable measures, a court might find the landlord at least partially liable for any injuries that result from subsequent muggings.

How to Prove a Landlord's Negligence

As with most injury-related cases, establishing that a landlord was negligent usually means documenting as much as you can about the situation that led to your harm, and the impact (financial and otherwise) of your injuries. That includes:

  • saving all emails, letters, text messages, and other correspondence with the landlord that might touch on the dangerous property condition
  • getting the names and contact information of any other tenants or witnesses who might have knowledge about the landlord's actions (or inaction) that led to your injuries
  • taking pictures of the area of the property where you were injured (emphasizing any visible dangers), and of the injuries themselves
  • keeping all medical treatment records, bills, and other evidence of the nature and extent of your injuries
  • getting documentation of the time you missed at work and other financial losses resulting from your injuries, and
  • keeping notes about how your injuries are affecting your day to day life.

What Kinds of Compensation Can an Injured Tenant Receive?

In most situations, when a tenant files an injury lawsuit over a landlord's negligence, the compensable losses ("damages" in the language of the law) available to the tenant can include:

  • the cost of medical care (past and future) necessary to treat the plaintiff's injuries
  • any time missed at work or income lost because of the tenant's injuries and their resulting inability to work
  • other out-of-pocket losses stemming from the injuries, and
  • physical and mental "pain and suffering" resulting from the injuries and their impact on the tenant's quality of life.

Learn more about the types of damages available in a personal injury case.

If you've got specific questions about a potential injury lawsuit against a landlord, whether caused by a dangerous property condition or some other issue, it might make sense to discussion your situation with an experienced legal professional. Learn more about finding the right injury lawyer for you and your case.

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