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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.