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Landlord Liability

Historically, the courts throughout the United States held that, under the common law of premises liability, tenants could not sue their landlord for injuries caused by an unsafe condition on the leased premises. These decisions were based on the assumption that the tenant was in possession and control of the property, such that it would be unfair to hold the landlord liable for any injuries caused by a condition on the property.

More recently, the courts and various state legislatures across the country have recognized that the common law was unfair, and that tenants should be able to sue their landlords for injuries caused by an unsafe condition in the rental property.

In Ohio, for example, the General Assembly enacted the Landlord Tenant Act in 1974 to require landlords to maintain the rental property in a reasonably safe condition, and Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.04 requires a landlord to do all of the following:

(1) Comply with the requirements of all applicable building, housing, health, and safety codes that materially affect health and safety;

(2) Make all repairs and do whatever is reasonably necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition;

(3) Keep all common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition;

(4) Maintain in good and safe working order and condition all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning fixtures and appliances, and elevators, supplied or required to be supplied by the landlord;

Several years later, the Ohio Supreme Court, in Shroades v. Rental Homes, 68 Ohio St. 2d 20, 427 N.E.2d 774 (1981), held that a landlord's violation of the provisions of the Ohio Landlord Tenant Act is negligence, and that the landlord may be held liable for any injuries sustained by the tenant as a result of the landlord's failure to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition as required by the Landlord Tenant Act.

The question which remained unanswered was whether the protections afforded to a tenants by Ohio's Landlord-Tenant Act also applied to the tenant's guests. This question was recently answered by the Ohio Supreme Court.

On February 12, 2014, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its decision in Mann v. Northgate Investors, L.L.C., 2014-Ohio-455, 2014 Ohio LEXIS 242, 2014 WL 553197. The plaintiff in that case was a 15-year-old girl who was visiting a friend who was a tenant in an apartment building owned by the defendant. As the plaintiff left her friend's second-floor apartment, she had to walk down two sets of stairs in order to exit the exit the building. The plaintiff testified that the stairway was dark because the lighting fixtures were broken, that she proceeded down the stairway even though it was dark, and that she fell at the bottom of the steps and crashed through a glass window because she could not see the bottom step, sustaining serious injuries.

The defendant argued that the Landlord Tenant Act did not apply to guests, such that its liability should be determined under the common law, and that, under the common law, it owed no duty to the plaintiff because the dangerous condition of the stairway, the darkness, was an open and obvious danger that she voluntarily encountered, and that it had no duty to protect her from that open and obvious danger.

The trial court agreed with the defendant and granted it summary judgment on the ground that the Landlord Tenant Act was not intended to apply to the guests of tenants, and instead was meant only to protect the tenants. The Franklin County Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Landlord Tenant Act applied to both tenants and their guests, such that the defendant could be held liable if the plaintiff's injury resulted from its failure to comply with the provisions of the Landlord Tenant Act.

The defendant appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which held, in a unanimous decision, that the Landlord Tenant Act protected not only tenants, but also their guests, such that the plaintiff should be allowed to proceed with the claims that she asserted against the defendant under Ohio's Landlord-Tenant Act. The Ohio Supreme Court also held that its previous decisions to the effect that property owners owed no duty to protect guests on their property from dangers which are "open and obvious," those decisions did not apply to claims under the Ohio Landlord-Tenant Act.

This decision is an important victory for the citizens of Ohio. More and more Ohioans now rent, rather than own, their homes, as a result of the economic turn down and foreclosure crisis. Now, both the tenant, and the tenant's guest, will be protected by Ohio's Landlord-Tenant Act, and both will be able to bring claims for injuries sustained as a result of a landlord's failure to maintain the rental premises, including the common areas, in a reasonably safe condition.

If you are a tenant, or the guest of a tenant, and were injured as a result of the landlord's failure to maintain the rental premises in a reasonably safe condition, you should contact an experienced attorney to discuss whether you may be able to bring a claim against the landlord seeking compensation for those injuries.

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