The last thing any landlord wants to hear is, “Hey, I think there’s black mold in my apartment...”
However, the reality is it happens — especially in a state as humid and muggy as Florida.
Landlords have the obligation to provide tenants with a safe, habitable environment — no matter which state you live in. But this doesn’t mean they won’t try to cut corners during mold remediation if they can get away with it.
Florida tenants should know their rights and legal obligations before speaking with landlords, as this can save time and unnecessary aggravation on both sides.
The basics of toxic black mold
Mold has a bad reputation. While this is warranted in certain situations, many times some mold is okay or even desired. Penicillin, for instance, is derived from mold. Furthermore, many types of mold found in a house or apartment are harmless.
Toxic black mold, however, is harmful and dangerous. Officially known as Stachybotrys chartarum, this type of fungi can lead to serious health issues after prolonged periods of exposure. Health problems might include:
- Mental impairment
- Skin inflammation
- Respiratory issues (coughing, wheezing, sneezing, etc.)
- Internal organ damage
This doesn’t even include the serious property damage that can occur. Black mold, like any other type, thrives in dark and damp spaces. It likes wallpaper, baseboards, insulation and other places where it can grow until you happen to notice it. By then, it may have done irreparable damage, since mold eats whatever it lives on until the structural integrity of the property is at risk.
That’s the bad news. The good news is if your rental unit has been damaged by black mold, you do have legal recourse. Suing your landlord is one of these methods.
Another tried-and-true method is renter’s insurance. If your belongings have been damaged because of black mold, contact your insurance company immediately. This route may be easier than starting a lawsuit, so pursue these options first before taking legal action.
Landlords and black mold
Your landlord won’t be happy to hear about black mold in your unit. He might even try to blame it on you, saying it never would have happened if you didn’t leave wet towels on the bathroom floor or if you used the fan when showering.
These arguments don’t change the fact that landlords in Florida must provide safe and habitable living conditions (this legal concept is the “implied warranty of habitability”). By paying rent, you are fulfilling your duties to your landlord, who is then expected to keep your rental unit in habitable shape. This applies even if your lease doesn’t specifically state that a landlord is responsible for repairs. This legal concept also protects tenants from retaliation if they should complain of housing code violations.
Toxic black mold is a problem that threatens your rental’s habitability. If a defective bathroom fan leads to mold build-up, your landlord is responsible for fixing that fan. Most leases say that landlords are responsible for fixing structural defects; as such, a failure by the landlord to repair a fan could mean a breach of contract lawsuit. By breaching lease provisions, your landlord becomes liable.
What should I do if I find black mold in my rental unit?
First step: don’t panic. It might not even be black mold.
The second step is to figure out what type of mold it is. If you’ve been suffering from unexplained health issues, this becomes even more imperative. Contact your landlord as soon as you discover mold, and do so via letter so there’s a written record. You might need to refer to that later, should the situation progress to litigation.
Even if you haven’t fallen ill, toxic black mold is a violation of the implied warranty of habitability. As such, your landlord is responsible for rectifying the problem.
Of course, your landlord may choose to fight you. They might say it’s up to you to test the air and pay for an inspection. Many landlords take it upon themselves to pay for inspection, but sometimes you have to do it yourself and show them a professional report that clearly says, “TOXIC BLACK MOLD FOUND HERE.”
If a landlord refuses to pay for a mold inspection, it opens them up to additional liability down the road.
How (and when) to sue your landlord for black mold
Filing a personal injury lawsuit against your landlord should never be your first course of action. Test the air and determine the problem first. Perhaps it’s a harmless genus of mold and causing no health concerns.
Let’s say that your landlord resists you every step of the way. They don’t pay for testing or mold remediation, leading you to pay for it yourself. They don’t rip out walls or replace damaged insulation. You haven’t had health problems yet, but you might down the road. What should you do?
This is when you should consider suing.
There’s no reason, legally or ethically, why a tenant should foot the bill for mold remediation. Depending on how much you have in damages and property loss, there’s the possibility of resolution in small claims court. Many states have a limit of $10,000 for the amount in question, though each state has different thresholds. You would most likely represent yourself in this scenario. If your damages are due to be more than $10,000, you should work with an attorney.
Going to small claims court is essentially a mini-trial. After writing a demand payment letter to your landlord, you should prepare evidence related to losses and damages, present your case and (hopefully) collect damages.
Damages can include items like:
- Property loss (damage to personal property, walls, insulation, baseboards, etc.)
- Money spent on fixing property and remediation of mold
- Lost wages as a result of illness
- Medical expenses caused by mold exposure (including future medical expenses)
- Loss of earning capacity (if caused by mold injuries)
- Pain and suffering
Proving a toxic tort case can be difficult. Like any other personal injury claim, you must prove causation and illustrate that:
- Your landlord owed you a duty of care;
- That this duty was breached when your landlord failed to keep your unit in habitable condition; and
- That the breach caused you harm and resulted in quantifiable damages. The breach must be a direct or proximate cause of whatever harm you suffered. (This is “causation,” typically the hardest part to prove in a toxic tort claim.)
Causation is critical here. You must show that but for this toxic black mold, you would not have damages. This is called the “but for” test.
Talk to a lawyer
If you think there’s black mold in your rental, take the preliminary steps listed above to see how serious the problem is. Once bills start racking up and a professional as confirmed that it’s toxic black mold, consider meeting with a lawyer. Someone versed in landlord-tenant issues and toxic tort cases would be great to have on your side in the weeks and months ahead.
Haven’t met with an attorney yet? Try looking through the Enjuris law firm directory for someone local.