Rental Property Management

5 Landlord Liabilities That Might Surprise You

| 3 min. read

Most landlords are aware they could be liable for injuries and damages resulting from unsafe conditions on their property. Typical examples include a tenant slipping on a patch of ice or falling down broken steps after the landlord has been notified of the dangerous condition and failed to resolve it.

But there are other potential liabilities that aren't the typical "slip and fall" situation. Five surprising landlord liabilities are briefly described here.

#1: Dogs

Landlords are generally not liable if a tenant's dog bites someone unless they knew the dog is dangerous (i.e. they know the dog has bitten someone before) and could have had the animal removed.

Suggestions: The simplest action would be to prohibit dogs in the lease. If you want to be dog-friendly, consider adding the following terms to the lease:

  • Only allow specific dog(s) you have met and approved.
  • Require the dog to be leashed when not in the rental unit.
  • Allow for changes to the pet clause at any time (or with 30 days notice).
  • If these terms are violated, or if the dog becomes a hazard (in your sole reasonable discretion), require its removal or termination of the lease.
  • Require renters insurance with liability coverage.

#2: Criminal Activity

Landlords have some responsibility to protect their tenants from criminal activity on their property. Tenants have sued landlords for failing to take reasonable steps to protect them from crime, especially when the landlords were aware that a similar crime already occurred in that location.

Suggestions: Take reasonable and necessary steps to make sure your property is safe.

  • Comply with laws designed to protect tenants, such as providing good lighting and window and door locks.
  • Regularly inspect security systems.
  • Take action immediately if you are notified of a dangerous situation.
  • If a security light is broken, fix it.
  • If there is suspicious activity, notify the police and warn your tenants (consider a mass text or email).
  • Consider hiring security personnel or installing surveillance equipment.

Landlords also have a responsibility to protect the neighborhood from the criminal activities of their tenants. Landlords can be sued for public nuisance, and law enforcement and government authorities can impose fines or seek criminal penalties against a landlord who allows drug dealing on his or her property.

Suggestions: Find tenants who are not likely to commit crimes and act promptly when there is a problem.

  • Screen potential tenants very carefully.
  • Do not rent to people who have been convicted of violent or dangerous crimes (but be careful about violating privacy and anti-discrimination laws).
  • Require references and follow up on them.
  • Prohibit drug dealing and other illegal acts in the lease and quickly evict tenants who violate that provision.
  • As soon as you learn of any illegal activity contact local law enforcement for advice.

#3: Windows and Screens

Every year thousands of children are killed or injured falling out of windows. Many of those windows have screens, which do not always provide an adequate barrier. Landlords and property management companies have been held liable in some of those cases.

Suggestions: While the outcomes vary by state and the facts of each case, there are lessons to be learned from each situation. An Oregon court held in 2009 that the landlord was liable when a 2-year-old fell out of an unusually low second story screened window. The family argued the landlord should have installed a child-safe screen or baby gate.

  • Remind tenants before move-in that children should be kept away from open windows, especially if those windows are low.
  • Once you say you will install a screen, you are obligated to do so.
  • If installed screens become damaged, repair them as soon as possible.

#4: Secondhand Smoke

Landlords may have an obligation to prevent tenants and their guests from being harmed by secondhand smoke in common areas and in their units, on the grounds that it is a breach of the implied warranty of habitability and a nuisance or trespass. Disabled tenants with breathing disorders could use the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act to sue landlords for not making reasonable accommodations for them.

Suggestions: The simplest action would be to make your entire property smoke-free, and to state that in your lease agreement. If you don't want to completely prohibit smoking, consider the following:

  • Designate specific smoking areas, located where smoke will not drift into individual units or common areas.
  • Before allowing smoking in individual units, consider whether smoke can travel to other units through a duct system, or drift from a balcony to adjoining balconies.

#5: Bedbugs

Depending on the state, landlords may be automatically liable for exterminating bedbugs and for any damages. A landlord failing to deal promptly with a bed bug infestation could be sued for breach of the warranty of habitability.

Suggestions: If you live in an area where bed bugs are a known possibility, be pro-active and document your actions:

  • At move-out have rental units inspected and certified bed bug free by a licensed pest control company; have the next tenant acknowledge the certification.
  • Require reporting of bed bugs and to cooperate in them (including burning furniture, if the pest control company recommends it). Require synthetic covers on mattresses and bed springs.
  • If there could be a problem, promptly contact a licensed pest control company.

Prevention is Worth It

These liability issues might be news to you. If any concern you, now would be the time to take some preventive action and do some follow up work or consult your attorney.

This information should not be considered legal advice. Keep in mind that state and local jurisdictions have different laws and rules. Always check the rules and regulations in your area and consult an attorney before changing your lease agreements or taking any action.

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