Here’s a distressing scenario:
You rent a 1 bedroom apartment on Park Boulevard in Oakland, California. While moving into the apartment you trip on a rotten step leading up to the front door and break your leg.
Is your landlord liable for your medical expenses? What if the rotten step was inside the apartment instead of outside? What if your mother was visiting you at the apartment and she tripped on the rotten step? Would the landlord be liable for her medical expenses, or would you be liable?
California has some very specific laws when it comes to landlord liability for tenant and third-party injuries. Let’s take a closer look.
The area of law that determines whether a landlord can be held liable for an injury sustained in a rental is called “premises liability law.”
In general, there are 2 time periods when a landlord can potentially be held liable: before giving the tenant possession of the rental, and after giving the tenant possession of the rental.
Before giving possession of a rental property to a tenant (or upon renewal of a lease), a landlord must conduct a “reasonable inspection” of the property for “unsafe conditions.” The landlord must then repair any unsafe conditions that are discovered or that should have been discovered.
If the landlord fails to repair any obvious unsafe condition, and a tenant is injured as a result, the landlord can be held liable.
Let’s look at an example:
It would be unfair to require a landlord to know about and repair all dangerous conditions that arise after a tenant takes possession (i.e., moves into the rental). This is because the landlord doesn’t have the right to enter the premises without permission (nor would the tenant want the landlord to do so).
There are, however, a couple of important exceptions:
A landlord’s duties to a third party (such as a friend or relative of the tenant) are similar to the duties a landlord owes a tenant. Once the landlord turns over possession, the landlord is only liable for injuries to third parties caused by dangerous conditions that the landlord had actual knowledge of and that the landlord had a right to eliminate.
Again, the reasoning behind this law is that legislatures don’t want to create a situation where landlords feel the need to engage in potentially intrusive oversight of a premises.
A landlord cannot escape liability for failure to maintain the premises in a safe condition by delegating the duty to an independent contractor.
Let’s say that a landlord owns an apartment complex in California but lives in Oregon. The landlord hires a maintenance person to care for the apartment complex and the maintenance person fails to fix a broken step. Later, a tenant (or a third party) trips on the broken step.
Under California law, the injured person would have the right to sue and recover damages from the landlord even though the landlord hired the maintenance person to take care of the premises and wasn’t even in the state when the accident happened.
If you’re injured as a result of a dangerous condition and threaten to sue your landlord, there’s a good chance your landlord will hold up a copy of your lease and point to the paragraph stating that you waive your right to hold the landlord liable.
Your inclination might be to give up. Don’t.
In California, landlords can’t protect themselves from lawsuits by putting clauses in their rental agreements absolving themselves for injuries suffered by tenants as a result of their negligence. These clauses, known as “exculpatory clauses,” are not legal and not enforceable.