Tenant Injuries: Landlord Liability and Insurance FAQ
Protect yourself from liability from tenant injuries.

When is a landlord liable for an injury to a tenant or visitor to the rental property?

To be held responsible for an injury on the premises, the landlord or property manager must have been negligent in maintaining the property, and that negligence must have caused the injury. All of the following must be proven for a landlord to be held liable:
  • It was the landlord's responsibility to maintain the portion of premises that caused the accident.
  • The landlord failed to take reasonable steps to avert the accident.
  • Fixing the problem (or at least giving adequate warnings) would not have been unreasonably expensive or difficult.
  • A serious injury was the probable consequence of not fixing the problem (the accident was foreseeable).
  • The landlord's failure his negligence caused the tenant's accident.
  • The tenant was genuinely hurt.

For example, if a tenant falls and breaks his ankle on a broken front door step, the landlord will be liable if the tenant can show all of the following:
  • It was the landlord's responsibility to maintain the steps (this would usually be the case, because the steps are part of the common area, which is the landlord's responsibility).
  • The landlord failed to take reasonable measures to maintain the steps (for days or weeks, not if it had only been broken for minutes).
  • A repair would have been easy or inexpensive (fixing a broken step is a minor job).
  • The probable result of a broken step is a serious injury, and it was foreseeable (falling on a broken step is highly likely).
  • The broken step caused the injury (the tenant must be able to prove that he fell on the step and that the step is where he broke his ankle).
  • The tenant is really hurt (as in the case of a broken bone).
  • A tenant can file a personal injury lawsuit for medical bills, lost earnings, pain and other physical suffering, permanent physical disability and disfigurement, and emotional distress. A tenant can also sue for damage to personal property, such as a stereo or car, that results from faulty maintenance or unsafe conditions.

How can landlords minimize financial losses related to repairs and maintenance?

You can avoid many problems by maintaining the property in excellent condition. Here's how:
  • Use a written checklist to inspect the premises and fix any problems before new tenants move in.
  • Encourage tenants to immediately report safety or security problems such as plumbing, heating, broken doors or steps whether in the tenant's unit or in common areas such as hallways and parking garages.
  • Keep a written log of all tenant complaints and repair requests with details as to how and when problems were fixed.
  • Handle urgent repairs as soon as possible take care of any safety issues within 24 hours. Keep tenants informed as to when and how the repairs will be made.

Twice a year, give tenants a checklist on which to report potential safety hazards or maintenance problems that might have been overlooked. Use the same checklist to personally inspect all rental units once a year.

Also, the responsibilities for repair and maintenance should be clearly set out in the lease or rental agreement.

How can insurance help protect a rental property business?

A well designed property insurance policy can protect a landlord's rental property from losses caused by many perils, including fire, storms, burglary, and vandalism. (Earthquake and flood insurance are typically separate.)

A comprehensive general liability ("CGL") policy provides liability insurance, covering injuries or losses suffered by others as the result of defective conditions on the property. Equally important, liability insurance covers the cost (mostly lawyer's bills) of defending personal injury lawsuits.

Here are some tips on choosing insurance:
  • Purchase enough coverage to protect the value of the property and assets.
  • Be sure the policy covers not only physical injury but also libel, slander, discrimination, unlawful and retaliatory eviction, and invasion of privacy suffered by tenants and guests.
  • Carry liability insurance on all vehicles used for business purposes, including the manager's car or truck if it's used on the job.

Are landlords required to use written rental applications?

While not required, asking prospective tenants to fill out written applications can protect you from lawsuits filed by irate applicants that you rejected as tenants.

For example, suppose you talk to six tenant applicants before renting one of your units. You pick Applicant #3 because you feel he is most likely to reliably pay the rent. Two weeks later, you get a call from a lawyer representing Applicant #5, who claims she was discriminated against because she is African American and a single mother. If you aren't willing to pay $10,000 to settle the matter, you'll promptly be sued in federal court for $50,000.

Because you have no written documentation explaining how you picked Applicant #3, your insurance carrier proposes to pay the rejected applicant $10,000. After all, the insurance company points out, it looks bad that you picked a white male with no children, especially since it turns out that the African American single mother has a higher paying job.

Had you been able to produce all the candidates' comprehensive written applications, their credit reports, and references from previous landlords, the result would likely have been different. You would have had good written documentation supporting why you picked Applicant #3 his credit history and job stability were far better than that of Applicant #5, who (despite her current good job) had recently declared bankruptcy and had poor references from previous landlords.

What types of discrimination are illegal when choosing a tenant?

Fair housing laws specify illegal reasons to refuse to rent to a tenant, such as rejecting an applicant because of race, religion, ethnic background, sex, or because the applicant has children or a disability.

In addition, some state and local laws prohibit discrimination based on a person's marital status, sexual orientation, or age.

Landlords are legally free to choose among prospective tenants as long as their decisions comply with these laws and are based on legitimate business criteria. For example, a landlord is entitled to reject someone with a poor credit history, insufficient income to pay the rent, or past behavior such as damaging property that makes the person a bad risk. A valid occupancy policy limiting the number of people per rental unit one that is clearly tied to health and safety can also be a legal basis for refusing tenants.

Landlords must apply selection standards, such as requiring a minimum income and a good credit report, equally to all tenants.

What kinds of subtle discrimination are illegal?

The Fair Housing Acts prohibit landlords from taking any of the following actions based on race, religion, or any other protected category:
  • falsely denying that a rental unit is available to some applicants
  • advertising that indicates a preference based on group characteristic, such as skin color
  • setting more restrictive standards, such as higher income, for certain tenants
  • refusing to reasonably accommodate the needs of disabled tenants, such as allowing a guide dog, hearing dog, or other service animal
  • setting different terms for some tenants, such as adopting an inconsistent policy of responding to late rent payments
  • terminating a tenancy for a discriminatory reason.