Victims who have been hurt on a rental property can sue the property owner, the tenant, any company that maintains the property, and any employee whose negligence contributed to the accident. Suing multiple defendants is common. Depending on the case, though, some of these parties will be unlikely to fully compensate the victim for his or her injuries.
Who can be held liable for a personal injury on a rental property?
There are 4 potential parties to sue under premises liability after an accident on rental property. They are:
- the property owner, or landlord,
- the tenant,
- the property maintenance company or contractor that cares for the premises, or
- a negligent employee who failed to keep the area safe.
In many cases, it is unclear who caused the dangerous condition that led to the victim’s injuries. In these situations, multiple parties can be named as defendants in the personal injury case. These defendants may also share liability if more than one was partially responsible.
Getting the legal advice of a personal injury lawyer is the best way to know how to proceed.
The owner of the property, or the landlord, is a common party to be held liable for an injury suffered on one of their rental properties. In many landlord lawsuit cases, they are the ones who have a legal duty to keep the premises safe. They have this duty of care because they are the ones who usually have the control of the property that is necessary to make the needed repairs.
If the rental property is residential, the landlord is generally obligated to keep the common areas and the building in a safe condition. This often includes:
- outdoor fixtures, like lights, gates, fences, and the yard,
- common areas,
- smoke detectors,
- interior walls, including those inside an apartment,
- electrical wiring, and
If the rental property is commercial, the landlord’s responsibilities will often be governed more by the rental agreement than by state laws. This usually means that commercial tenants have more legal duties than residential tenants. Commercial landlords also tend to hire a management company to perform the daily maintenance for the business premises. This may lead to a shared liability if the management company provides negligent work. However, it will rarely shield the landlord’s negligence in maintaining the property.
Liability of the tenant
In some cases, the tenant may be liable for injuries that occur on the premises. This is especially common in rental properties that are being used for business purposes.
Residential tenants are generally only responsible for the things that are in their apartments. If one of the renter’s belongings causes an accident that hurts someone else, the tenant may be responsible. They may also be held liable if they break their lease and that causes an injury.
For example: Joe rents an apartment. Rather than washing his dishes by hand, he buys a portable dishwasher to do it. One day while Joe is at work, the dishwasher breaks. It floods his apartment’s kitchen. The water seeps through the floor and drips into the rental unit below his. The water lands on that tenant’s laptop computer, breaking it.
Commercial tenants have more legal obligations to keep. They generally have to make sure that patrons are safe while in the store.
For example: A local grocery store rents their storefront from the owner of the property. A customer drops a grape and another patron slips on it. The grocery store will likely be held liable if there was a reasonable amount of time to clean up the mess. The property owner will likely not be held liable.
Property management companies
Many landlords, both residential and commercial, contract with property management companies to keep the premises safe. If the management company fails to do so, they may be held liable for their negligent upkeep.
Just because the management company did not do its job, though, does not mean that the landlord cannot be held liable. They may still be liable for negligent hiring. Many states, including California, also hold that keeping property in a safe condition is not a delegable duty.
Another potential defendant for a premises liability lawsuit is the employee whose negligence directly led to the accident and injuries. This employee often works for either the property management company that oversees the premises, or for the property owner, itself.
For example: Pete works for a management company that maintains a complex of condominiums. While trimming a tree, he fails to put up signs to warn complex residents of the danger. He cuts down a tree limb and it falls on Jennifer.
The negligence of these employees will generally pass through them to their employer. Victims or injured tenants can hold the employer vicariously liable through the doctrine of respondeat superior. This means that the employer would pay for the costs of its employee’s negligence.
What are some common situations for this to happen?
Just like with regular premises liability, there are lots of different injuries that can happen on rental properties.
For residential properties, some common examples include:
- a visitor in an apartment building falls in the stairwell after stepping on a broken stair,
- a pedestrian slips on an icy sidewalk outside a rental property, or
- a deliveryman gets bitten by a tenant’s dog.
For commercial properties, some common situations are:
- a patron in a grocery store slips and falls after stepping in a puddle of melted ice cream,
- while driving in the parking lot, a shopper hits a pothole and the axle of her car breaks, or
- a warehouse visitor gets hit by an employee driving a forklift and suffers serious injuries.
The only thing distinguishing rental property injuries from regular slip and fall injuries is the fact that there is a tenant in between the victim and the property owner. In most cases, the victim has no way of knowing this until they have been hurt.
If any of these situations have led to an injury, it is very important to establish an attorney-client relationship with a personal injury attorney from a reputable law firm who is experienced in landlord-tenant law.
What damages can these defendants pay?
The defendant in a personal injury lawsuit who is found to be liable for the victim’s or tenant’s injuries will have to pay his or her legal damages. These damages compensate the victim for their:
- medical bills and medical expenses,
- lost wages,
- lost earning capacity,
- emotional distress,
- pain and suffering, and
- mental anguish, especially if the injuries involve a disfigurement.
The damages in a successful personal injury claim are often paid by the liable party’s insurance company. Adequate insurance coverage is a big factor in recovering full compensation. If there is not enough insurance coverage, the victim may not recover what he or she deserves. This is why it is very important to hold the property owner liable. Tenants or individual employees rarely have adequate renter’s insurance or liability insurance.
What is the law in California?
In California, the owner of a piece of property is liable for injuries that happen on it if they own, possess, or control it.1 This generally means that the owner is a source of liability for most injuries.
Additionally, California does not allow property owners to delegate responsibility for the upkeep of their property. Even if the owner hires someone else to maintain their property, and then someone gets hurt on a dangerous condition that should have been fixed, the owner cannot dodge liability by pointing at the contractor.2 Instead, the law will focus on the landlord’s failure to take reasonable steps to ensure their property was free of unsafe conditions.
For example: A California landlord calls the local handyman to fix a broken step. To keep his costs down, the handyman uses rotten wood. The step breaks, again, and a tenant gets hurt. Even though the handyman was negligent in repairing the problem, the landlord may still be held liable.