After a tragic accident in Berkeley, California where a balcony collapse claimed six lives, lawsuits now are in the works, and soon a judge and jury will determine whether or to what extent the landlord was responsible.
Lawyers for the survivors and the families of those who perished point to mushrooms on the balcony as an “unambiguous” sign that the structure was compromised from wood rot, that according to a news report.
The report also indicates that the balcony may have been tilting away from the building in the months leading up to the accident. Tenants claim the landlord failed to fix structural damage, and such actions were “despicable and malicious”, prerequisites to a claim for punitive damages which often are not covered by a landlord’s insurance policy.
The tragedy is a wake-up call for landlords, particularly those who do not fully understand the reach of premise liability.
A form of negligence, premise liability law requires that landlords not only fix things that they know are broken, but also warn of hazards that may not be obvious, and in many cases, to inspect regularly and avoid hazards that they “should have” noticed.
The best way to defend against a claim of premise liability is to show that the landlord did everything reasonably necessary to ensure the safety of tenants and guests at the property. These are some factors that may show a landlord acted reasonably:
The property is up to the standards of local building codes;
The landlord has adopted and follows a building maintenance plan;
That plan is accompanied by a checklist for regular inspections, and the landlord can show the dates and times that these items were checked;
All work requiring special skill has been performed by licensed and well-supervised workers;
Permits have been obtained on projects where this is required by local building codes, and the work was officially inspected; and
Tenants have an easy mechanism to report potential problems, and there is no history of multiple tenant complaints left unresolved.
It’s important to keep contemporaneous records, and a copy of building-related issues should be placed in a master-file, in addition to an individual unit or tenant file, and should include notes on how any tenant complaints were resolved.
Other important strategies that can limit premise liability risks include:
Manage your property manager. Be proactive even if you do not personally manage the rental units. Review expense reports and raise questions when too little money is being spent on routine maintenance and repairs. Ask tenants to evaluate your property management service from time to time. If the service rates low for dealing with repairs and maintenance items, step in.
Keep premise liability in mind when purchasing new properties. Make sure you know what problems you may be inheriting. In addition to a professional property inspection, ask to look at maintenance records and expense reports. If those reports are sketchy, that is a major red flag.
Of course, the only way to avoid premise liability altogether is to prevent any premise-related injuries. The more landlords do to protect tenants, the more likely the rental properties will remain profitable — and that’s a win for everyone.
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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.