As a tenant in an apartment building or rental home, you may not realize that your lease also guarantees you the right to expect a certain level of safety and security. You should be able to go to sleep at night not worrying that a careless landlord has left you at risk for an accident or injury.
If you are injured or attacked while living in a rental home, you may be able to pursue a lawsuit against your landlord or apartment complex to help pay for your recovery.
Premises liability basics
Landlord responsibility falls under the umbrella of premises liability. To a certain degree (and subject to circumstance) whoever owns a property is responsible for injuries that visitors or tenants suffer.
A number of factors are looked at to determine reasonableness when it comes to licensees and invitees:
- Why was the person on the property?
- How were they using the property?
- Was the accident foreseeable?
- Did the owner make reasonable efforts to warn of existing dangers?
Slip and falls in and around the home
Negligence on the part of property owners is often the cause of slip and fall accidents. For example, if your landlord failed to install proper lighting or remove obstacles from a stairway or hallway and you are injured in a fall, it is at least partially the landlord’s fault.
Every year, thousands of people sustain injuries ranging from a minor scratch to being crippled in slip and fall accidents. The National Floor Safety Institute found that 50% of all accidental deaths in the home are due to injuries sustained when falling. Injuries from falls account for more than eight million emergency room visits every year.
Slip and fall accidents can result in broken bones, spinal trauma and head injuries, leaving you with costly medical bills. According to the National Safety Council, falls in the home most commonly occur in these areas:
- Areas that have uneven surfaces
- Crowded areas
Some of the most commonly treated problems associated with falling include:
- Broken hips and pelvic bones, especially among the elderly
- Broken arms and legs
- Back and spinal cord injuries, which are among the most painful and difficult to recover from
- Head injuries causing permanent brain damage, seizures, memory loss or impaired cognitive functioning
- Neck injuries
- Torn ligaments in the wrist, foot, or leg
Proving fault in a slip & fall injury
Your landlord’s insurance may cover your injuries automatically, or you may need to hire a personal injury attorney to assist with your claim.
The law defines specific incidents where an owner or landlord is responsible for a fall that occurs on his or her property. To prove a property owner liable for your injuries, you must present evidence showing that either an employee or the landlord/building owner:
- Was aware of a potential hazard but took no action;
- Should have been aware of a potential hazard because an area posed an obvious risk; or
- Was directly responsible for your injury by creating a dangerous walking surface through spilling liquids, failing to maintain worn or damaged flooring, or other means.
Proving liability can be tricky. Ultimately, your lawyer will need to prove your claim of negligence.
Could you be at fault for your injury?
In order for the property owner or landlord to be found responsible for your fall, you must prove that you are blameless. The law considers all legal adults to be accountable for personal safety in most situations. “Wet floor” sign stories are an example of this, because adults should be able to read and follow such warnings.
In a personal injury claim you will want to:
- Confirm that you were moving conscientiously and not skipping, jumping or being otherwise careless.
- Make sure you exercised due care in observing where you were walking.
- Be certain you were not trespassing or in a restricted area.
If you are certain you could not have avoided the fall, you next need to prove that your landlord/ the property owner could have prevented it. Proving this may work a little differently, depending on whether your injury was a slip and fall or trip and fall.
In cases of tripping, you should ask:
- Was the item I tripped over intended to be there, and should I have been aware of it?
- Did I trip over flooring that was poorly installed or maintained?
- Could the item I tripped over have reasonably been kept in a safer location?
For both trips and slips, ask:
- Should a warning have been posted regarding the potential danger?
- Did the area have sufficient lighting to prevent such accidents?
Personal safety and security
Apartment complex owners are also responsible for the people they employ to care for the property. For example, if an employee causes harm to tenants or their property, the landlord/apartment complex management could be held liable. Additionally, if the apartment complex does not provide reasonable security measures for tenants who then become victims of a crime in their home, there could be cause for civil action.
In most states landlords can be held to a certain degree of responsibility to protect their tenants from criminal activities. Juries have provided significant awards to plaintiffs who have sued landlords, particularly if multiple crimes have been committed on the property or if the landlord did not take proper precautions.
Employees are the landlord’s responsibility
Landlords must provide careful screening for both employees and tenants on their properties. If they don’t, they could be held liable if a crime is committed.
Colleen M. Quinn runs the Women’s Injury Law Center out of the firm Locke & Quinn in Richmond, VA, where she is a partner. The Center once provided services for a client who was raped, stabbed and left to die by a maintenance worker at her apartment complex.
Colleen and her client launched a civil case against the temp agency that employed the worker, which failed to do a thorough criminal background check on him, and the apartment complex that did not allow tenants to install deadbolts in their apartments.
Both companies were found liable and the woman received $3 million in settlement, which helped cover her therapy and other recovery needs, including her move to a house in safer part of town with a security system.
Victims who are raped or assaulted in their own homes may not realize that there are potential civil recoveries that they can receive from their landlords. While there can be compensation in a criminal trial, it is often minimal compared to a potential civil case outcome, Colleen said.
She notes: “A civil lawyer can make sure that every stone has been turned over and that all remedies are looked into.”
The eggshell skull rule
The “eggshell skull rule” holds that the defendant’s liability won’t be reduced just because the plaintiff is more susceptible to injury than the average plaintiff.
John returns home to his apartment complex after being on vacation for a week. It’s the middle of winter and a snowstorm has created a thick sheet of ice on the apartment complex steps. Despite several complaints by others in the apartment complex, the landlord has failed to treat or remove the ice from the steps.
As John is walking up the steps, he slips and falls on his side. John, who has hemophilia, begins to bleed excessively. He is rushed to the hospital and misses 2 weeks of work as a result of the injury.
John sues his landlord for $100,000.
John’s landlord argues that an otherwise healthy person would have suffered minor scrapes from the fall and he should only be responsible for paying the damages associated with minor scrapes.
The court holds that, under the eggshell skull rule, the landlord is responsible for all of John’s medical bills and lost wages.
Find out more about the eggshell skull rule
Other landlord responsibilities
Other situations where landlords could be liable for damages include mold in the home, illegal use of lead paint, or harm that you as a resident face when other tenants engage in illegal activities such as drug dealing.
Although it only takes a few moments for a fall or criminal activity to happen in your rental home – the physical pain, emotional trauma and medical expenses can last for the rest of your life. When the situation was caused by the negligence of your landlord, whether intentional or not, you may be entitled to compensation by filing a personal injury lawsuit.
Have you been victimized in any way as a tenant in a rental property? Did you take legal action against your landlord? Please share your story below.