Is the landlord at fault?

Colin McCarthy
Colin McCarthy | 4 min. read

Published on April 6, 2012

I enjoyed philosophy classes in college. I enjoyed thinking about such questions, as: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? I enjoyed even more Bart Simpson’s reply to the question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? (He immediately held up his one hand and patted his fingers against his palm, making a muted clapping sound).

My enjoyment of these questions has found a natural outlet in the law. The law ostensibly provides you with an answer, whether it be found in a book, or in a code section, or recommended by experts. So it is one of those questions today that is our focus: If a tenant hurts himself in an apartment and the landlord did not know about the condition which caused the injury, was the landlord at fault?

As is always the case, the answer in law is perfectly clear: it depends. There is a duty to inspect premises when the property is given to the tenant. Landlords are in the best position to assess the relative safety of the property before the tenant takes control, so they should inspect and repair as needed. The inspection should comport with general negligence principles – i.e. be “reasonable” and make it “reasonably safe.” *

Yes, but how do we know if it is reasonable? Well that answer is clear and simple and straightforward: it depends. It depends on the facts of your case! In California:

“The burden of reducing or avoiding the risk and the likelihood of injury will affect the determination of what constitutes a reasonable inspection. The landlord’s obligation is only to do what is reasonable under the circumstances. The landlord need not take extraordinary measures or make unreasonable expenditures of time and money in trying to discover hazards unless the circumstances so warrant.”**

Clear as mud, right? So we fall back on common sense. If you are intimately familiar with the property you are about to rent – having lived there for five years – your duty to inspect probably is not great. You know what works, what does not, what is likely to injure (hopefully not much), and what is not. You know where the cracks in the slab in the garage are. In contrast, if you are not familiar with the property, you ought to conduct a more thorough inspection. If you just bought the property and have not had extensive time with it, you might consider a more thorough inspection. You might document what you find and give it to the tenant in writing, or repair as required.

Obviously, as we’ve discussed previously, if the inspection uncovers something dangerous, you ought to repair the condition before giving possession to the tenant. But if there is an open and obvious condition that is itself a warning to and is patent to the tenant that it is dangerous, the landlord might not be liable for any resultant injuries.

And further, if one possesses legal title but does not yet have control – that key word in our liability analysis – they cannot be held liable for injuries. If they have no opportunity to inspect and/or repair, their liability is usually precluded.

*Swanberg v. O’Mectin, 157 CA3d 325 (1984)

**Mora v. Baker Commodities, Inc., 210 Cal. App.3d 771, 782 (1989)

This blog submission is only for purposes of disseminating information. It does not constitute legal advice. The statements in these blog submissions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Robinson & Wood, Inc. or its clients. No attorney-client relationship is formed by virtue of reading this blog entry or submitting a comment thereto. If you need legal advice, please hire a licensed attorney in your state.

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Colin McCarthy

Colin G. McCarthy is a partner in the business litigation, products liability, and insurance practice groups at Robinson & Wood in San Jose, California.

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