Washington Landlord May Be Liable for Injuries If It Maintains Responsibility for Repairing Premises

Generally, in a Washington premises liability case, a landowner may be held liable for injuries on the land if he or she has not given exclusive control of the premises to a lessee.  If, however, the lease requires the landlord to repair the premises, then the landlord may be held liable for his or her own negligence.

The Washington Supreme Court (the “Court”) was recently asked to determine if a landlord was liable for injuries occurring in an area where the tenant had exclusive possession, but where the lease only granted the tenant priority use and the landlord was obligated to maintain and repair the premises.

The plaintiff was severely injured when a passenger ramp at the Port of Bellingham (the “Port”) fell. She worked for the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). The State of Alaska has leased the Bellingham Cruise Terminal (BCT) from the Port of Bellingham for many years.  Although AMHS has exclusive use of some areas under the lease, the lease gives AMHS only priority use of parking spaces and the marine facilities, including the passenger ramp.  Under the lease, the Port was solely responsible for keeping the premises “in good repair and tenantable condition.”  The lease requires the Port to keep the premises “in good and substantial repair and condition.”   The Port is to “maintain the leased premises free of structural or mechanical hazards.”

According to the Court’s opinion, AMHS operates the passenger ramp, which is suspended from steel cables on a motorized pulley system.  Steel pins are used when the ramp is in place so all of the weight is not being supported by the cables.  The Court noted, however, that the pins did not prevent the cables from unspooling, resulting in slack in the cables.  If the pins were removed while there was slack in the cables, the ramp would fall.

The Court noted an interlock system could have prevented slack in the cables when the pins were set.  The Court stated this system could be installed by rewiring the control panel to prevent the pins from being moved if they were misaligned or if there was slack.  According to the Court, this fix could be accomplished by an electrical engineer in about 15 minutes and would cost less than $1,000.

The plaintiff removed the pins when there was slack in the cables.  The ramp dropped, snapping the cables and falling about 15 feet until it hit the ferry.  The plaintiff was unable to remember the accident or preceding events due to her injuries.

The plaintiff and her husband sued the Port in federal court for negligence and were awarded more than $16m.  The jury found that neither the plaintiff nor the state of Alaska was negligent.  The Port appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit certified questions regarding premises liability to the Washington Supreme Court.

The Washington Supreme Court considered whether a tenant’s possession at the time of an accident absolves the landowner of liability if the tenant only had non-exclusive priority use and the landowner was obligated to maintain and repair the property.  The Washington Supreme Court found that under the circumstances presented, the landlord could be held liable as owner of the property.  The Court found that the landlord had sufficient control through the priority use provision, requirement to maintain and repair, and the ability to lease the property to be held liable as a premises owner.

The Court distinguished this case from previous cases where the landlord was not held liable because here the landlord was contractually obligated to maintain and repair the premises.  Not only was AMHS not obligated to maintain or repair the premises, but AMHS was also prohibited from making changes to the property without written permission from the Port.  The Port, however, could enter the property to examine its condition at all reasonable times and make changes.  The Court found the landlord could be held liable where it maintained authority over the premises.  The Port had the authority and ability to reduce the risk of injury to people on the premises.

Although the Court had a very specific question in front of it, this case illustrates that a landlord may retain liability for dangerous conditions on leased property.  If you have been hurt on someone else’s property, the skilled Washington personal injury attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC can help you get the compensation you deserve.  Call (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation.