Landlords are generally responsible for keeping their rental properties in safe condition and in good repair for their tenants. In this article, we’ll discuss a landlord’s liability for tenant injuries on the rental property.
The primary legal principle that holds landlords liable for injuries suffered by their tenants is called negligence. Negligence is a legal concept that holds people accountable for the unintentional harm they cause to others. To prove negligence, a tenant must show that the landlord breached a duty owed to the tenant (by not meeting the standard of care required under the circumstances), and that the tenant was injured as a result.
What does “standard of care” mean? Standard of care is a legal term for the amount of attentiveness, prudence, and caution that a reasonable person must exercise under the circumstances. If a landlord does not meet the standard of care and the tenant is injured as a result, the landlord is negligent, meaning he or she can be liable for the injuries suffered by the injured person.
What is a landlord’s standard of care? Generally, the standard of care owed by a landlord to a tenant is “reasonable care”: a landlord must reasonably maintain safe conditions on his or her property. To determine whether or not the landlord acted reasonably, courts ask (1) what the average, reasonable landlord would do under similar circumstances, and (2) whether the landlord exercised at least that level of care.
What if children are involved? Occasionally the level of care owed by a landlord may be greater than "reasonable care." For example, where young children are involved, because children are less able to appreciate risks and avoid danger, a landlord may be required to exercise a greater degree of care.
When there is a law in place that is designed to protect tenants or the public, and a landlord violates that law, then the landlord will be deemed negligent, without the need for additional proof. In legalese, this is called negligence per se. Essentially, in such situations, all the tenant needs to show is that the landlord violated the law, that the law was designed to protect tenants (or the public) from the type of harm the tenant suffered, and the tenant was injured as a result.
A common example of negligence per se is a landlord’s failure to install smoke alarms. If your state has a law that requires the installation of smoke alarms, and the landlord does not install them, the landlord will be liable for any injury that results from a fire that could have been extinguished had there been smoke alarms in place. Whether or not the landlord acted reasonably by not installing the smoke alarms is immaterial. All that must be proven is that the landlord violated the law, that smoke alarm laws are designed to protect tenants from injuries caused by fires, and the tenant was injured as a result of a fire.
When a tenant is injured on the landlord's property, whether in the tenant's unit or in a common area, it doesn't automatically follow that the landlord is liable for the injuries.
A landlord is only responsible for injuries that are caused by the landlord's failure to exercise reasonable care, and the injuries suffered must be foreseeable.
The foreseeability test basically asks whether the landlord should have reasonably foreseen the general consequences that would result because of his or her conduct -- that the tenant would be injured by the landlord's action or inaction. But if the tenant's intentional or reckless conduct caused the injury, then the landlord probably cannot be held liable.
A landlord can be liable for a tenant’s physical injuries that result from the landlord’s failure to adequately maintain the property, or make repairs. For example, if a stairway has a defective handrail and a tenant falls on the stairs and is injured as a result, the landlord may be liable for the tenant’s injuries, provided that the landlord had notice of the problem and a reasonable time to fix it.
A landlord can also be liable for damages caused by the criminal acts of others if the criminal acts were reasonably foreseeable. For example, if the tenant’s unit does not have a deadbolt on the door or windows that can lock, and a criminal gains access to the unit through the door or window, then the landlord can be liable. Another common scenario involves a landlord’s failure to adequately light common areas, such as a parking lot, which results in the tenant being assaulted.