California premises liability laws for landlords
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.
When is a landlord liable for an injury to a tenant?
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 to the tenant
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:
Later that night, Maria moves into the apartment. While carrying a box up the back steps in the dark, she puts her hand on the cracked handrail and falls. She fractures her hip and sues Antonio.
In the above example, Antonio had a duty to conduct a reasonable inspection before giving possession to Maria. If Antonio had conducted a reasonable inspection, he would’ve discovered the cracked handrail and fixed it (or at least warned Maria about it). Because he failed to do so, the court will likely find him liable for Maria’s injuries.
After giving possession to the tenant
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).
As a result, California law holds that a landlord generally won’t be liable for any injuries on the premises that are caused by dangerous conditions that come into existence after possession has passed to the tenant.
There are, however, a couple of important exceptions:
- When the landlord had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition and the right to repair it
- When the injury occurred in a common area over which the landlord retains complete control (such as common hallways, stairs, and elevators)
In Garcia v. Holt, a landlord in California rented a home to a couple. Without the landlord’s knowledge or permission, the couple began manufacturing and storing a massive cache of homemade explosives.
The landlord hired a gardener to help take care of the premises. While walking around the home, the gardener triggered an explosion that seriously injured him. He sued the landlord on the theory that the landlord had a duty to inspect the premises and ensure that there were no dangerous conditions.
The court held that residential landlords don’t have a duty to eliminate dangerous conditions once they give up possession of a home unless they have actual knowledge of the dangerous conditions and the contractual right to eliminate them.
When is a landlord liable for injuries to a third party?
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.
What if a landlord gives the maintenance duties to an independent contractor?
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.
Are liability waivers effective?
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.
Think you might need an attorney to help resolve a premises liability issue? Use our free online directory to locate a California attorney in your area.