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What do I do if a collection agency wants me to pay $5,000 for a fire started in an apartment that I rent?

Asked by user in Illinois.

My brother rented an apartment. There was a fire that started in the kitchen. My brother spoke to the fire marshall and he said that the cat probably jumped on the stove and turned the knob causing gas to release and later ignite. Now, my brother got mail from a collections agency that is billing him $5,000 for the damages. I told him he needs to talk to a lawyer, but I don't even know what field of law this is.

Answered by Enjuris Editors:

If a tenant’s negligence caused a fire in an apartment, the tenant may be liable for the damages. However, before a collection agency could legally seek money from the tenant, the landlord would have to get a judgment (through the court) against the tenant.

If your brother has a judgment against him, there is little he can do at this point other than to work out a payment plan with the collection agency. On the other hand, if your brother does not have a judgment against him, then he should look at whether his insurance will cover the damages.

To sort this out and determine whether a judgment has been entered against your brother, I would recommend having him meet with a landlord-tenant attorney or a debtor’s rights attorney in his area. Keep in mind that it may not make financial sense to pay an attorney to litigate a $5,000 dispute. Nevertheless, most initial consultations are free and your brother should be able to get some clarity by meeting with an attorney.

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