Landlord Liability When A Tenant Is Injured
By The Elmore and Smith Law Firm, PC on October 29, 2019 | In Personal Injury
There are times when a residential tenant is injured due to a defect at his or her rental property. Whether it be rotten boards on a porch, no handrails on a stairwell, or broken tiles in a bathroom, tenants can suffer serious and potentially deadly injuries when premises are not maintained the way they should.
Can A Landlord Be Held Liable In North Carolina?
Possibly. A landlord may be held liable for the personal injury to tenants caused by defects, negligent acts and/or omissions in their rented residential property. This means that victims could be entitled to compensation for losses such as medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering.
Rental property has traditionally been divided into two distinct areas. First, there is the leased (or “demised”) premises, which is the property over which the tenant has control.
Second, there is “common property,” which is a property that the tenant shares access to along with other tenants. Think of an apartment building with a stairwell that serves various apartments. The leased premises would be individual apartments. The common areas would be the hallways, stairwells and parking lot of the apartment building.
With regard to the common areas, a landlord always has a duty to keep these areas reasonably safe and perform a reasonable inspection of the property for hazards which could cause a personal injury. For example, if a stairwell in a common area were covered in slippery ice, a landlord would have a duty to inspect the premises and remove the ice.
For leased premises, common law previously stated that landlords were not liable for failure to maintain these premises. The theory was that they had given control of the property to the tenant in the lease. Therefore, as long as the property was under the control of the tenant — no matter how unsafe the condition — the landlord had no control over the property and, therefore, no liability for personal injuries caused by the condition (See Robinson v. Thomas, 244 N.C. 732, 94 S.E.2d 911 (1956); Harrill v. Refining Co., 225 N.C. 421, 35 S.E.2d 240 (1945).
North Carolina then created a duty on landlords to maintain safe and habitable premises for their tenants in the “Residential Rental Agreement Act,” codified at N.C. Gen. Stat 42-38 through 44. This law specifically requires landlords to “comply with current applicable building and housing codes (and) make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition” (See N.C. Gen. Stat 42-42). Therefore, if a condition inside the tenant-controlled area is dangerous and could cause an injury, the landlord has a duty to correct this defect. However, the failure of a landlord to correct the defects is not negligence in and of itself, but the only evidence of his negligence (See N.C. Gen Stat 42-44 and Brooks v. Francis, 57 N.C.App. 556, 291 S.E.2d 889 (1982).
Further North Carolina case law has required that the tenant complain or notify the landlord of a defect prior to the imposition of this duty unless the tenant can show that the landlord had prior knowledge of the condition (Dioroi v. Penny, 417 S.E.2d 457 (1992). Additionally, if a public building inspector were to notify a landlord of a defect and the landlord failed to immediately correct the problem, the landlord’s failure to act would be negligence in and of itself pursuant to NC. Gen. Stat. 160A-425, Jackson v. Housing Authority of High Point, 326 S.E.2d 295 (1985).
What If The Tenant Is Partly At Fault?
The existence of negligence by the landlord is not, however, the end of the story. North Carolina is one of only four states in the country that adopts a doctrine called contributory negligence.
Contributory negligence means that if an injured person bears any percentage at fault for her own injuries in an accident, he or she can recover no compensation at all. Having knowledge of a dangerous condition (like ice on steps) and not avoiding the condition (like using a different way out) could be considered contributory negligence.
Further, if the condition is one that should have been seen or known to the tenant (like an uneven step on a flight of stairs), the tenant might again be contributorily negligent and barred from recovery for failing to observe the hazard. Trip and fall/ slip and fall cases are especially difficult for plaintiffs in North Carolina due to the contributory negligence defense.
Hidden hazards (such as a fire caused by faulty electrical wiring, carbon monoxide poisoning due to a leaky furnace or poisoning from contaminated well water) would stand a higher chance of prevailing in court.
In summary, if you have been injured on the rental property due to a landlord’s failure to correct defects on the premises, North Carolina law may allow you to be compensated for your injuries. However, each case is fact-specific. If you would like to speak with a knowledgeable personal injury attorney and how it applies to rented premises, please call or contact The Elmore and Smith Law Firm for a free consultation.