Landlord Liability for Personal Injury of Residential Tenants

When a Residential Tenant is Injured on Property They Lease: Is There a Remedy?

Often, a residential tenant who is leasing property is injured by a defect in the property they rent. Whether it be rotten boards on a porch, no handrails on a stairwell, or broken tiles in a bathroom; the tenant can be injured in a variety of ways. At issue for this article is whether a landlord can be held liable for the personal injury to tenants (including medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering) caused by defects or omissions in their rented residential property.

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 would be property where the tenant shares access along with other tenants. To illustrate this point, think of an apartment building with a stairwell that serves various apartments. The leased premises would be the 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. 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.

With regard to the leased premises, under common law, landlords were not liable for failure to maintain these premises. The theory was that they had ceded 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 decrepit or unsafe the condition, the landlord had no control over the property and, therefore, no liability for harm 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 an affirmative statutory duty on landlords to maintain safe and habitable premises for their tenants in the "Residential Rental Agreement Act", codified at NC Gen. Stat 42-38 through 44. The 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...." (NC Gen. Stat 42-42) Therefore, if a condition inside the tenant-controlled area is dangerous, 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 only evidence of his negligence. (see NC Gen Stat 42-44 and Brooks v. Francis, 57 N.C.App. 556, 291 S.E.2d 889 (1982)). Further case law has required that the tenant complain or notify the landlord of the 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)

The existence of negligence by the landlord is not, however, the end of the story. North Carolina adopts the doctrine of contributory negligence. In short, this doctrine states that, in most situations, if a plaintiff is in any percentage at fault for her own injuries or accident, she recovers nothing. North Carolina is one of only four states left in the country employing this harsh doctrine. 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 short, if you have been injured on residential property that you lease due to a landlord's failure to correct problems in the property, North Carolina may allow you to be compensated for your injuries. However, each case is fact specific. If you would like to speak with attorney Ruth Smith regarding the circumstances of your case, feel free to call or e-mail her today.

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Each case is different. Many factors such as the severity of injuries, ability to prove liability, amount of liability insurance coverage, jurisdiction, medical expenses, and many other factors can determine the outcome of a particular case. You should not use these examples as a representation of what recovery you will obtain in your particular case, as every case is unique. Ruth Smith does not guarantee that the outcome of your case will be similar to the results listed above.