Premises Liability for Landlords and Property Managers


Although most tenancies end without incident, sometimes accidents or injuries will occur in rental properties. As the landlord or property manager1 is very often the party with the most money or insurance, an injured person may be very interested in trying to find a way to assert their liability for an injury. Liability is most likely to arise when the injury occurs in a common area of the property, such as a parking lot, common hallway, laundry room or common stairwell, but under some circumstances may extend to injuries that occur within portions of the premises under the exclusive control of a tenant.

This article describes how a landlord's neglect of the premises, primarily in the performance of maintenance duties, can significantly increase the chance that the landlord will be sued in the event of an injury on its premises.

Failure to Maintain Doors and Locks

Exterior doors should open and close properly, and all locks should function properly. Where tenants can buzz guests into a building, if the lock is malfunctioning it is not uncommon for tenants to prop the door open, creating a significant risk of unauthorized access. Landlords should consider using solid doors, reinforced door frames and long screws to secure doors and hinges. With more casual installation some doors can be easily knocked out of their frames or off of their hinges, and hollow core doors are often subject to being broken or kicked in.

Appropriate security should be provided for sliding glass doors, even if only in the form of a dowel that can be dropped into the track to prevent the door from being opened if the lock is sprung or if a tenant accidentally forgets to lock the door. If the door can potentially be lifted off of its track, the door should be fitted with anti-lift mechanisms to prevent that from occurring.

Failure to Maintain Windows

Rental properties are very often subject to local ordinances that require security measures on windows, well beyond what is required under a residential building code. A landlord should ensure that windows include all required security measures, and that they properly open, close and lock. Security devices may be installed, consistent with fire codes and the need for emergency egress, to limit the extent to which a window can be opened from the outside. Appropriate, fire code-compliant security measures should be taken with windows that might be used for unlawful access, in order to reduce the possibility of or prevent any such access.

Failure to Exercise Proper Key Control

When renting property, landlords will normally retain at least one copy of the key in order to access the property for reasons including the development of an emergency (such as a fire or broken water pipe), for agreed repairs, for scheduled showings of the property to future prospective tenants or buyers, and to access the property after a tenant vacates. A landlord will thus have a set of keys that, should they fall into the wrong hands, could subject tenants to a wide range of crimes and indignities. Backup keys, as well as master keys, should be kept in a secure location and should themselves be kept in a locked key box and that box should, in turn, be kept in a secure location or office.

Care should be exercised to ensure that employees who have access to the keys undergo proper background checks, to minimize the number of people who may be able to access keys, and to keep a log of key use, including the date, time, reason for the use of the key, and the identity of the person who removes and returns the key. An additional level of security can be provided by coding the keys, such that a separate document must be consulted to determine what key will open a given unit, rather than identifying them by unit number or address.

When a tenant moves out, it is good practice to rekey the locks to the rental unit. Even if the tenant returns all copies of the key, it is possible that a former tenant will have had a duplicate made. Even if you take the extra step to mark the keys, not every locksmith cares if a key is stamped "do not copy".

Failure to Maintain the Premises

Normally a landlord will enjoy considerable legal protection against claims based on the condition of areas of a building that are under the exclusive control of a tenant, based upon the fact that the landlord has little to no control over those portions of the premises. Exceptions may arise due to the full facts of an injury or due to differences in state law.

At the same time, a landlord is responsible to maintain common areas of a building, and its neglect of flooring or stairways, to inspect the premises and repair potentially dangerous conditions, and to provide appropriate notice of any hazards in common areas both inside and outside of a building, can result in liability. In some jurisdictions a landlord may have an obligation to take reasonable security measures to protect residents from foreseeable criminal activity.

Failure to Maintain Alarms and Emergency Equipment

Although a tenant may be responsible to change smoke detector batteries within a unit during the course of a tenancy, the landlord should make sure that smoke detectors are in good working order and are replaced on a schedule consistent with the manufacturer's recommendation. Any fire alarm, sprinkler system or burglar alarm system should also be maintained in good working order. Fire extinguishers in common areas should be regularly serviced and charged. Any other emergency equipment should be periodically inspected and tested to make sure that it is present and operational.

Footnote

1. References to a landlord within this article should be read as inclusive of property management companies who are serving as the landlord's agent.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Feb 15, 2016.