What Happens When a Tenant Sues for Negligence?
Tenants don’t commonly sue for negligence, but it does happen. Landlord negligence is usually defined as a persistent failure to conduct proper inspections, make necessary repairs, and maintain the property and grounds to a habitable standard. If a tenant is able to reasonably show that the landlord isn’t adhering to the terms laid out in their lease, they may have a solid case. However, an actual guilty verdict is dependent on many other factors. If you’re concerned about a tenant suing you for negligence, here’s what you need to know.
Several basic pieces get looked at when assessing what does and does not qualify as negligence. The first is duty. Duty refers to a landlord’s responsibility when it comes to habitability. While the standards of habitability vary based on your local housing codes, several universal pieces include functioning heat and the property being insect-free.
The next part, breach of duty, is fairly self-explanatory. Quite simply, a landlord’s duty to the tenants has been breached. This could be something as small as a tenant complaining to you about a leaky pipe and your failing to address it if the lease states you’re responsible for maintaining the plumbing.
Another piece is causation. If your breach of duty (in this example, that leaky pipe) led to excessive water damage and a mold buildup, you have caused the damage in the unit through your inaction.
Damages are the trickier portion of a negligence lawsuit and are often difficult to prove. This refers to whatever a tenant is seeking through the lawsuit. Most commonly, damages take the form of financial compensation.
Few landlords need to have a lawyer on retainer. Unless you’re working with a national property company, chances are you’ll only need to seek legal advice at times. Unfortunately, a negligence lawsuit is one of those as-needed situations. Depending on your liability policy and the size of the claim, your insurance company may be legally obligated to furnish a lawyer for you. Even if the claim falls to the jurisdiction of a small claims court – in which case you may want to handle it yourself – you will still benefit from a coaching session or two.
Regardless, once a tenant starts expressing interest in legal recourse, you need to hire a lawyer. Luckily, plenty of Halifax law firms specialize in landlord-tenant law to navigate you through the finer points of a negligence suit and how to reach the most favorable outcome. They’ll also advise you on what steps to take to avoid the need for any future legal intervention.
If you’re concerned about a negligence suit that might stem from a bad landlord-tenant relationship, the best place to start is by adopting a more thorough tenant screening process. While it’s always important to check a prospective tenant’s rental history and credit score, it’s just as crucial that you perform at least a cursory background check. It’s also a good idea to contact previous landlords to make a general inquiry into their prior tenant’s demeanor while renting.
If a tenant does put in maintenance requests or alerts you to a potentially dangerous situation, address them immediately and document them. If you have proof that you did your best to remedy a complaint, it’s that much easier to avoid negligence claims down the road.
While a negligence lawsuit is a frightening prospect, if you’re doing your utmost to adhere to the terms of the lease and address complaints, you’re unlikely to face one during your time as a landlord. Do your research to remain informed about local housing codes and state-specific negligence laws. The more knowledgeable you are about landlord legalese, the better.