What Is Premises Liability and How Does It Affect Landlords?

There are seemingly countless issues relating to landlord-tenant relationships. When can a landlord evict a tenant? When does a landlord have to fix broken items in the property? Can a tenant have pets? When can a landlord increase rent? One important issue that is usually not considered until something goes wrong is what is a landlord’s liability to a tenant who is injured on the property? This blog seeks to lay out the basic analysis for this question.

Negligence

A tenant injured on a landlord’s property must prove “negligence.” According to Webster, Negligence is the “failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances.” (1)(b).

To establish negligence in Arizona, a Plaintiff must prove: (1) the existence of a duty recognized by law, obligating the defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a causal connection between the breach and the injury; and (4) actual damages. Ontiveros v. Borak, 136 Ariz. 500, 504, 667 P.2d 200, 204 (1983). Whether a duty exists is a question of law to be decided by the court. Bach v. State, 152 Ariz. 145, 147, 730 P.2d 854, 856 (App. 1986).

In Arizona, landlords have a duty to tenants who occupy their property which has evolved over time to increase a landlord’s duty to her tenants.

The Former Standard

Arizona’s former standard of care for landlord’s was essentially caveat emptor, or buyer be where. Essentially, the landlord was not responsible for anything after a tenant took possession. The former standard was that “[A] lessor of land is not liable to his lessee or to others on the land for physical harm caused by any dangerous condition, whether natural or artificial, which existed when the lessee took possession.” Piccola by & Through Piccola v. Woodall, 186 Ariz. 307, 310 (App. Ct. 1996).

However, this is no longer the standard. In modern times, courts have recognized a heightened duty owed by landlords to their tenants. While this responsibility has increased, it has not become overbearing on landlords.

The Modern Standard of Landlord Liability in Arizona

“[At common law, when land was leased to a tenant,] the tenant acquired an estate in the leasehold that conveyed not only possession but also control. The general rule was that in the absence of an express contractual provision, a tenant took the premises as he found them. In Cummings, however, the Arizona Supreme Court recognized that modern social policy considerations and Arizona precedent compelled the conclusion that certain exceptions should be carved out from the general rule. The court therefore held that the landlord was under a duty to inspect the premises and ‘to take those precautions for the safety of the tenant as would be taken by a reasonably prudent man under similar circumstances.’” Piccola by & Through Piccola v. Woodall, 186 Ariz. 307at 310 (internal citations omitted).

“The holding in Cummings also comports with the rule that, under Arizona law, a landlord’s duty to a tenant is analagous [sic] to that of a property owner to an invitee. A landowner owes a duty to invitees to make the premises reasonably safe and to inspect for and warn of dangers.” Piccola by & Through Piccola v. Woodall, 186 Ariz. 307, fn. 3. Understanding the temporary nature of most leaseholds, Arizona has noted that landlords tend to be in a better position than tenants to discover unsafe conditions in the premises.

“A landlord owes a duty of reasonable care which requires inspection of premises if there is reason to suspect defects existing at the time the tenant takes possession. The landlord must repair or warn the tenant of such defects.” Piccola by & Through Piccola v. Woodall, 186 Ariz. at 310. “Actual knowledge of the dangerous condition is not required. The duty to inspect arises when the landlord ‘has reason to suspect’ a defect. Information from which a reasonable person could infer that a dangerous condition exists is sufficient to impose liability.” Id. at 311.

The Arizona Supreme Court has explained that “the landlord is under a duty of ordinary care to inspect the premises when he has reason to suspect defects existing at the time of the taking of the tenancy and to either repair them or warn the tenant of their existence. In other words he is under the duty to take those precautions for the safety of the tenant as would be taken by a reasonably prudent man under similar circumstances.” Cummings v. Prater, 95 Ariz. 20, 26 (AZ S. Ct. 1963).

This duty of care continues “throughout the lease period,” requiring the landlord “to maintain [the] premises free from ‘unreasonably dangerous’ instrumentalities that could potentially cause injury.” McLeod By & Through Smith v. Newcomer, 163 Ariz. 6, 8, 785 P.2d 575 (App. 1989). Again, actual knowledge of a dangerous condition is not required to trigger the duty. Rather, “[t]he duty to inspect arises when the landlord ‘has reason to suspect’ a defect.” Piccola By & Through Piccola, 186 Ariz. at 311 (emphasis added) (citation omitted). In other words, mere “[i]nformation from which a reasonable person could infer that a dangerous condition exists is sufficient to impose liability.” Id.; see also Coventry Homes, Inc. v. Scottscom P’ship, 155 Ariz. 215, 219, 745 P.2d 962 (App. 1987) (explaining the phrase “‘reason to know’ . . . denote[s] the fact that the actor has information from which a person of reasonable intelligence . . . would infer that the fact in question exists, or that such person would govern his conduct upon the assumption that such fact exists”) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 12(1) (1965)).

The scope of a landlord’s duty is a question of law for the court, not a factual matter that may be determined by stipulation or party admissions. See, e.g., Word v. Motorola, Inc., 135 Ariz. 517, 520, 662 P.2d 1024 (1983) (“Parties cannot stipulate as to the law applicable to a given state of facts and bind the court.”) (citation omitted).

Tenant Knowledge of Dangerous Conditions

Arizona recognizes that tenants have responsibility if the potentially dangerous condition is obvious or if the tenant has reasonable opportunity to discover the dangerous condition (e.g. if the tenant has lived at the property for a long time, the tenant might have been expected to learn of the potentially dangerous condition).

If a tenant has sufficient opportunity to learn of the dangerous condition, the landlord is absolved of liability for it. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 358 (2) (where the dangerous condition is undisclosed by the landlord, his liability continues only until the tenant has had a reasonable opportunity to discover the condition and take precautions); see also Restatement (Second) of Property (Landlord and Tenant) § 17.1 (2), comment f. “The lessor is under no duty to warn the lessee of a condition which he reasonably believes that the lessee will discover, or of the extent of the risk involved in an obvious condition, unless he should realize that the lessee is unlikely to appreciate it.” Piccola by & Through Piccola v. Woodall, 186 Ariz. at 312.

Conclusion

Landlord liability to tenants for potentially dangerous conditions has increased over time, but a landlord is not liable for every potentially dangerous condition. If the landlord warns the tenant or the tenant has the opportunity to learn of the dangerous condition the landlord may escape liability. Every situation is different but best practices for landlords is to routinely inspect the premises to learn of potential pitfalls. Landlords should warn tenants and fix any potentially dangerous condition.

Fowler St. Clair can help with questions related to landlord tenant liability. If you are a landlord with questions about your rental or if you are a tenant who was injured at the rental property, you can always reach out and one of our trusted team members can discuss your questions.