Friday, March 2, 2018
A significant concern for landlords is the extent of possible liability for injuries that occur on the leased premises. After all, the landlord is the owner of the leased property. Does liability follow legal ownership? If it does, that has serious implications for farm landlords, particularly because farming tends to be a hazardous occupation. Machinery, livestock, chemical application and similar farming activities and features such as farm ponds have the potential for injury.
Landlord liability for injuries occurring on leased premises, that’s the topic of today’s post.
Non-liability. In general, a landlord is not liable for injuries to third parties that occur on premises that are occupied by a tenant. For example, in Leopold v. Boone, No. 06A04-0904-CV-205, 2009 Ind. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1291 (Ind. Ct. App. Sept. 4, 2009), the plaintiff suffered a severe brain injury from a bicycle crash caused by dogs owned by the defendant’s tenant that ran from the leased property onto a public highway where the plaintiff was bicycling. The trial court judgment for the defendant was affirmed because the defendant did not owe a duty to the plaintiff. Importantly, the plaintiff failed to raise a nuisance claim at trial and was thereby precluded from raising the issue on appeal.
Exceptions. The reason for the rule of landlord non-liability is that the tenant has the possession over the leasehold premises during the tenancy and has control over what occurs on the leased property. However, there are at least six well recognized exceptions to this general rule. For example, if the landlord conceals dangerous conditions or defects that cause the third party's injury, then the landlord will be liable. Likewise, if conditions are maintained on the premises that are dangerous to persons outside of the premises, the landlord is liable for any resulting injury. A landlord will also be liable if the premises is leased for admission of the public or if the landlord retains control over part of the leased premises that the tenant is entitled to use. In addition, if the landlord makes an express covenant to repair the leased premises, but fails to do so resulting in injury, the landlord is liable. Similarly, a landlord is liable for injuries resulting from the landlord's negligence in making repairs to items located on the leased premises.
Another exception to the general rule of landlord non-liability for a tenant’s acts is if the landlord knows that the tenant is harming the property rights of adjacent landowners and does nothing to modify the tenant’s conduct or terminate the lease. In that situation, the landlord can be held liable along with the tenant. See, e.g., Tetzlaff v. Camp, et al., 715 N.W.2d 256 (Iowa 2006).
Other principles. In general, a licensee or invitee of the tenant has no greater claim against the landlord than has the tenant. Thus, a landlord's duty to not wantonly or willfully injure a trespasser is usually passed to the tenant who has control of the property. However, a landlord can be held liable where the landlord knew of defects that were likely to injure known trespassers.
A landlord is also usually not held responsible for injuries occurring on the leased premises caused by animals that belong to the tenant. With respect to dogs, it must generally be proven that the landlord had actual knowledge of the animal’s dangerous propensities. See, e.g., Seeley v. Derr, et al., No. 4:12-CV-917, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99506 (M.D. Pa. Jul. 17, 2013); Bryant v. Putnam, 908 S.W.2d 338 (Ark. 1995).
Arecent Kentucky case illustrates some of the legal principles involved when an injury occurs on leased premises. In Groves v. Woods, No. 2016-CA-001546-MR 2018 Ky. App. LEXIS 59 (Ky. Ct. App. Jan. 26, 2018), the plaintiff and her husband entered into a verbal lease with the defendant for a lease of the defendant’s property. The plaintiff claimed that the lease covered the entire property, but the defendant asserted that the lease only was for the house and abutting yard. Adjacent to the home, the defendant had a pasture and a barn where the defendant boarded a Tennessee Walking Horse. The horse spent time both in the pasture and in the barn. The defendant claimed that he informed the plaintiffs not to go near the horses and to keep their children out of the barn.
Nine days after moving in, the plaintiff and her children went for a walk to see an old graveyard. They cut through the pasture to get to the site. It was disputed whether the plaintiff and the children crossed a fence into the pasture where the horses spend time. The defendant claimed that they crossed onto the pasture, but the plaintiff claimed that they never crossed onto the pasture or traversed the fence. The plaintiff maintained that the horse was running loose, chased her, and stomped her thigh after she fell. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant and the defendant counterclaimed that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent. The defendant moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted and also denied the plaintiff’s motion to alter, amend, or vacate the summary judgment.
The plaintiff appealed. The court held that the number of lengthy depositions in the case provided no certain evidence to indicate whether the plaintiffs rented the house and the yard or the entire property. With this uncertainty and the fact that the lease was verbal the court decided to accept the assertion that the family rented the entire property. The court held that because the plaintiff testified of knowing about the horse, the defendant could not be liable for failure to warn the plaintiffs about a known latent defect. Thus, the trial court’s grant of the motion for summary judgment was appropriate. In addition, the court held that because the horse’s owner did not know or have reason to know that the horse was abnormally dangerous, the defendant would be liable for the horse’s actions only if the defendant intentionally caused the horse to do harm or was negligent in failing to prevent harm. The court held that the plaintiff did not provide proof that the horse’s owner was negligent under this standard. Thus, the district court’s decision granting summary judgment was affirmed.
While a landlord will generally not be liable for injuries that occur on leased premises, there are situations where liability could result. Understanding what those situations are, taking steps to avoid their application and making sure appropriate insurance coverage is in place will go along way to avoiding an unhappy result for a landlord.