Landlord-Tenant Disputes Involving Premises Liability

What if you rent an apartment, and there is an unsafe condition in your unit or in the common areas of the premises? How can you get the landlord to fix the problem? Can you just move out? What are your legal rights? The answers to these questions mainly depend on two factors: the severity of the unsafe condition, and your state and/or city's landlord-tenant laws. Read on to learn more.

The Landlord's Duties and Rights

In general, your landlord has a legal duty to keep rental property in a reasonably safe and habitable condition. Landlords must comply with any state or local laws that place specific, additional duties on landlords with respect to their rental property. In return, the landlord has a right to receive rent from the tenant for the length of the lease.

The landlord also has a right to try to fix the problem before the tenant tries to break the lease. The tenant cannot just walk out; he/she must notify the landlord of the problem and give the landlord a reasonable opportunity to repair the problem.

The Tenant's Duties and Rights

Tenants have a duty to comply with the terms of their lease, if they have a lease. Tenants must pay rent until the end of the lease unless the landlord agrees to let them out of the lease. If a tenant stops paying rent and moves out before the end of the lease, the landlord has a right to sue the tenant for unpaid rent. If the tenant stops paying rent on the grounds that the apartment is unsafe, but refuses to move out, the landlord can go to court to get the tenant evicted.

If the rental property becomes clearly uninhabitable, then the tenant can move out and stop paying rent, and it is unlikely that the landlord will be able to win a lawsuit for back-rent against the tenant. An example of this might be an infestation of bugs. If the property becomes severely infested, the landlord has been unable to fix the problem, and the tenant documents the problem well, the tenant probably has a good defense against any lawsuit for back- rent that the landlord might file against the tenant after he or she moves out.

But, at the other end of the spectrum, if a tenant stops paying rent and moves out because a light bulb burned out or because the rug is torn, that is no defense, and the landlord is going to win a back-rent lawsuit against the tenant.

Specific Landlord Tenant Laws

All states have laws governing rental property. Some states' laws are far more specific than others. Some states offer tenants many protections against abusive or unsafe landlords, while other states offer comparative little protection. Depending on the state, the law may also specifically govern the procedure for tenant complaints about potentially unsafe conditions and/or the procedure for tenants to vacate the property in the middle of a lease due to an unsafe condition. Additionally, some cities and towns have local laws that offer additional protections for tenants.

If you are a tenant who is having a premises liability problem with your landlord, you should take a look at your state's and town's landlord tenant laws to see what your rights are.

Proving Your Case

Like any personal injury case, you must prove any premises liability claim against your landlord, especially if you want to get out of your lease because of an unsafe condition. You also have the burden of proof if you stop paying rent because of an unsafe condition and the landlord tries to evict you. Further, it is your burden of proof if you get hurt in your rental apartment, and you want to sue your landlord for personal injury damages.

In a landlord tenant dispute, you must document your case. You should have proof that you informed the landlord of the problem. If all of your communications with the landlord were oral, you should keep a log of when you spoke with the landlord and what the two of you spoke about. If you wrote the landlord a letter, you should keep a copy.

Most importantly, a picture is really worth a thousand words in a landlord tenant dispute. You should take pictures of the problem. Most, if not all, cameras and cell phone cameras now have a date stamp feature. Make sure that the date stamp is on for all pictures that you take. If you do not have a date stamp feature, put a current newspaper in the picture so that the date is apparent. If the problem changes from day to day (like a bug infestation), take pictures every day. Once again, it is your burden to document and prove your claim.

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