Washington Landlord Not Liable to Tenant’s Guest for Injuries Outside Common Areas

Many people think that a landowner is responsible for injuries that occur upon his or her property.  Landowners are often liable, but Washington premises liability attorneys know that it is the possessor of the land who generally has responsibility for the condition of the premises.  This means that a tenant, rather than the landowner, may have responsibility for the conditions of the property, as seen in a recent case.

The plaintiff was leaving her boyfriend’s home when she realized she forgot something.  When she stepped on the step leading up to the deck, it broke.  She was injured when her foot went through the broken board.

The property was a single family residence, but there was a mother-in-law unit with a separate entry and its own backyard and patio.  The plaintiff’s boyfriend rented the main unit, and other tenants rented the mother-in-law unit on a separate lease.  There was a shared carport area, but the deck where the plaintiff fell was attached to the main house and was for use only by the tenants of the main house.

The plaintiff sued the landlord, alleging she had breached her duty to maintain safe and habitable premises.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the landlord, finding the deck was not in a common area, and the tenant was responsible.

The plaintiff appealed, arguing the landlord was negligent after having notice of the deck’s condition.  She also argued the trial court erred in finding the landlord did not owe her a duty under the implied warranty of habitability.

Under Washington law, a landlord has a duty to maintain common areas in a reasonably safe condition but does not have a duty to repair non-common areas unless she has expressly agreed otherwise.  If there is no covenant to repair, the landlord is not liable to the tenant for injuries resulting from apparent defects once the tenant has taken exclusive control of the premises.  Furthermore, under Washington law, a landlord does not owe her tenant’s guest any greater duty than she owes the tenant.  Washington has held that a landlord is not the “possessor” of non-common areas of leased premises and is therefore not responsible for injuries resulting from defects in those areas.

There is Washington case law that has held landlords liable for injuries to tenants resulting from a dangerous condition if the condition is a violation of an implied warranty of habitability or a duty created by a statute or regulation, and the landlord failed to exercise reasonable care.  The appeals court noted, however, that this liability has not been applied when the plaintiff was not a tenant, and it declined to expand its application here.

The appeals found that the plaintiff’s boyfriend and his roommate were in possession of the main house and the deck, so the deck was not a common area.  The landlord therefore did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care.

The plaintiff also argued the landlord was negligent because she had failed to make the premises safe and habitable when she had the opportunity to do so.  The appeals court found there was no evidence the deck was in a dangerous condition when the tenants took possession.  Furthermore, both the plaintiff’s boyfriend and the landlord had previously repaired the deck.  The boyfriend repaired the deck the first time a board broke.  When another board broke, the landlord had someone replace it and other soft boards.  The appeals court found that the landlord’s replacement of the boards did not create a dangerous condition that would give rise to a duty of care.  Additionally, the plaintiff had not alleged or provided evidence that there was an express covenant of repair.

Finding the defendant landlord did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care, the appeals court affirmed the summary judgment.

This case shows that a tenant’s guest generally cannot recover damages from the landlord for injuries caused by defects in non-common areas of the premises.  There are some exceptions, however.  Even if no exception applies, that does not mean the victim is without any recourse.  Homeowners’ and renters’ insurance policies often contain medical payments coverage that will pay for medical expenses arising from injuries that occur on the property, without regard to fault.  Furthermore, the tenant is the possessor of the property and may be liable when the landlord is not.

If you have been injured on someone else’s property, a skilled Washington premises liability attorney can work with you to identify all potentially liable parties.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case with one of our attorneys.

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