Who's to blame when renter falls on stairway?

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 13, 2011

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News™

Q: A tenant's guest is suing us for injuries she says she suffered when she fell on a staircase at our building. The staircase had been recently repaired; our resident manager had replaced three loose steps just a few days earlier. He didn't know about the loose one she claims she tripped on.

He is very conscientious at his job and can't be expected to keep his eyes glued to every inch of the property 24 hours a day, can he? Isn't there a limit to what a property owner can be held liable for? --Betsy B.

A: A judge answering your question would pose another question, in turn: "Was this accident foreseeable, and did management take reasonable steps (pardon the pun) to avoid it?" Although it's impossible to know how a judge would rule based on the few facts you've provided, here's a few things to think about.

First, could you (or your manager; for these purposes, you are one and the same) foresee such an accident? Your manager was on notice that more than one step needed attention, and he repaired those three. But I can imagine the injured guest arguing that knowledge of three loose steps should have triggered a thorough inspection of the entire staircase.

This argument will have particular force if, after the accident, the guest inspects the rest of the stairs and finds other portions of the structure loose and dangerous. She'll argue that you were negligent because you did not heed the warning signs of a dangerous structure, and inspect and repair it (or at least warn tenants) right away.

That's the "reasonable efforts" part of the question -- surely more repairs, or at least a warning sign, would not have been unreasonable and would have avoided the accident.

On the other hand, if the loose stair she slipped on had been loosened suddenly, for reasons unrelated to general disrepair of the entire structure, then you and your manager might not be held liable. You certainly are not obligated to monitor every square inch of your property 24/7, and if a dangerous condition arises despite your reasonable efforts at maintenance, you may not be held responsible.

This situation illustrates a landlord's duty to not only fix what needs fixing, but also take additional measures when common sense suggests them. By doing the right thing (repairing the three steps), your manager arguably triggered the need to inspect the entire set of steps for yet more damaged treads. Half-measures can cost you dearly.

Q: My wife and I live in a mid-sized apartment complex. My wife is the "fill-in" office manager -- she takes over when the regular manager has to be away or is ill. But she's just been fired, and I think it's because the owner is mad at me. After weeks of trying to get the owner to deal with an infestation of mice, I called the local health department. They sent someone over who declared the situation a hazard and gave the owners a warning notice. But I was within my rights to complain! Can the owner get away with this? --David G.

A: You've asked a very timely question, and one that might not have a clear answer. To get as close as we can, we need to look at a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Thompson v. North American Stainless LP, in which a man was fired after his fiancé, who worked for the same company, filed a discrimination claim.

The fired male worker sued, arguing that he'd been fired in retaliation for his fiancé's action, but ran into the problem that it wasn't him who had filed the discrimination claim -- it was his fiancé. The lower courts barred his suit, but the Supreme Court allowed him to go forward.

The unanimous decision held that "… injuring him was the employer's intended means of harming (her). Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her. In these circumstances, we think (he was) well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by (the antidiscrimination law). He is a person aggrieved with standing to sue."

At first blush, your situation is quite similar. You've exercised a tenant right -- complaining to a government agency about unfit or unhealthy conditions -- that most states want to encourage. To make that encouragement mean something, state laws protect tenants from landlord retaliation when they complain in good faith. That's similar to protecting workers from retaliation when they file a good-faith complaint against their employers.

Had the female worker in Thompson been fired, there would have been no question about her right to sue for retaliation; and had your wife filed the report with the health department and been fired as a result, she too could have easily maintained a lawsuit against her employer.

Your situation is somewhat different because you are mixing tenant rights and employee rights. The Thompson case was all about employee rights: The woman was an employee whose fiancé was fired after she filed a claim.

You are a tenant whose wife (an employee) was fired after you exercised a protected tenant right. The question is whether your exercise of your rights as a tenant brings your wife within the realm of protection that she would have had if you had exercised an employee's right.

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