Court Says Landlords Didn’t Do Enough to Keep Tenant Safe

by Chris on June 20, 2016

The Supreme Court in British Columbia held that a property manager and two property owners are equally liable for injuries sustained by an infant who placed the end of a live extension cord into her mouth. The outcome hinged on the degree of care used when inspecting the rental property.

tenant screeningThe duplex unit rented for approximately $2,000 a month and had been rented consistently for about fifteen years. There was a custom-made entertainment center in the living room. The cabinet had originally been equipped with a power strip so that a TV, VCR and stereo system could be plugged in without the need to run cords to a wall outlet.

At some point in time, the wiring from the power strip had been jerry-rigged using a live extension cord running directly from a junction box concealed by the cabinet doors. It was determined that this modification likely was made by a former tenant.

The child was playing behind furnishings and happened to open the unused cabinet door. Once inside, she discovered the live extension cord and placed into her mouth. She suffered grievous injury as a result.

The current owners have never stepped inside the property. They purchased it as a rental investment. Because they live outside the country, they enlisted the help of a relative to oversee the day-to-day management of the property.

All parties agreed that the child suffered life-altering injuries and that the nonconforming extension cord was the cause. The Court was tasked with determining who was to blame.

In it’s analysis, the Court heard from a number of prior occupants of the property, as well as experts on electrical systems and on property management.

The Justice determined that, while the previous owner had installed the cabinet, the original power source was not dangerous. The alteration must have occurred later, while the property was tenant-occupied. The person who made the changes did so in a careless and clandestine manner.

Upon further inspection by an electrician, it was determined that the cord had been constructed with two male ends, it was wired directly into the house wiring with no switch, and a nearby outlet had been disabled. The expert indicated he had never seen anything like it before. This expert testified that it would be “highly unlikely” that an electrical inspection would have revealed the hazard given that the cabinet was massive and was hiding much of the defect.

However, a property management expert did not agree. He testified that the first order of business for a property manager when the property is to be placed into service is to perform a detailed property inspection. The property manager then would need to conduct mandatory move-in inspections at the beginning of each tenancy, and again on at least an annual basis. He testified that the reason for the annual inspections is to prevent problems like deferred repairs and safety issues.

The expert testified that it is “common practice” for a property manager to check all cabinets between tenancies to make sure they have been cleaned. It is during this process that the wires in the entertainment cabinet may have been discovered. That would have triggered further investigation as to where those wires originated, and whether they were live, according to the expert. He concluded that, while it is not common to pull furniture or appliances away from the wall to check wiring, it is common to check the cabinets, and therefore the landlords had a duty to do so.

The property management expert also indicated that the presence of an old record player in the entertainment cabinet should have been a signal that the cabinet was wired. The outlets near the cabinet were missing faceplates and one was facing the wrong direction, both red flags that the electrical system may not have been to code, according to the expert.

A second property management expert, called to testify for the landlords, admitted that, although the problem was concealed, having a receptacle positioned close to the floor and facing downward may have justified further investigation. In his opinion, a property manager is not obliged to search for an electrical hazard behind a finished wall. However, if there is something visible that seems “odd”, that should lead to further investigation.

There was some dispute as to whether the property manager in this case was acting in a professional capacity given that she was an owner’s sibling. However, it appears she was receiving some payment for the work. She testified that she had no training or prior knowledge regarding property management, and that she was not aware of the Residential Tenancies Act or her responsibilities under the law. However, the Justice found this did not excuse any negligence. Further, the owners were required to bring in a competent property manager if they were unable to manage the property alone.

Based on these conclusions, liability was allocated equally between the current owners and the property manager. No liability was placed on the victim, the victim’s parents, or the previous owner.

In addition to being aware of the duty a landlord owes under the law to inspect the property, it also is prudent for landlords to include language in the tenancy agreement prohibiting a tenant from making alterations to the property.

At the same time, it is important for landlords to respond quickly and effectively to tenant concerns. For instance, if a tenant were to complain about the wiring for the TV, the landlord should respond quickly and if appropriate, bring in an electrician to make the repair. That way, defects such as faulty wiring can be discovered before harm occurs, and tenants are not compelled to take action secretly.

Move-in and move-out inspection condition reports are essential to tracking damage caused by tenants. In this case, these documents were not available. Combining the report with a video tour or photographs can be extremely helpful in the event of a legal dispute.

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.

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