Landlords do not always conduct in-depth inspections of their property before signing a lease with a new tenant. Intensive yearly inspections are not practical, nor are they legally required. So landlords and tenants often sign leases with imperfect knowledge.
For example, a landlord's cursory inspection of his property may lead him to believe it is free of latent, or hidden defects, such as problems with plumbing, electrical wiring, heating, or structural integrity.
So when it comes time to sign the lease, however, the landlord often makes no guarantee that the property is free of unknown defects. He or she cannot fully guarantee that past tenants did not cause unseen damage to the property.
Ideally, the leased property presents no issues to the new tenant's safety. Unfortunately, that's not always the case.
The legal question that naturally follows is whether the landlord can be held liable for a tenant's injuries from these so-called latent defects. The "gut reaction" is to place the blame on the landlord. After all, he or she owned and leased faulty property to the tenant. But a New Jersey Appeals Court recently held otherwise.
In Reaves-Harrington v. Diguiseppi, a case just decided, a tenant was watching fireworks from the porch of her leased home. But a pillar that supported the roof of the porch came crashing down, injuring her. Both tenant and landlord were shocked by the accident - there was no clue that the support pillar was defective.
Shortly after that, the tenant filed a negligence claim against the landlord to recover damages. Any successful negligence claim means proving that a defendant failed to fulfill legal obligations towards the injured party. Here, the tenant had to first prove that the landlord had a legal duty to protect the tenant from non-apparent defects like the faulty support-pillar. Second, the tenant had to show that the landlord's conduct or misconduct in maintaining the pillar fell short of what was legally permissible in New Jersey.
The Court held that under New Jersey law, a landlord has no inherent duty to protect tenants from latent defects solely by virtue of being the landlord. It put the burden on the tenant to prove that the landlord had a duty to protect her from the pillar's unknown defect. The tenant could prove the landlord's legal duty by either (1) the contractual language of the lease, or (2) conduct by the parties which would have gave the landlord "reason to know" of the pillar's defect.
In this case, though, the Appeals Court decided that the tenant could not meet her initial burden in proving that the landlord had a legal duty to protect her from the pillar's latent defect. The lease was silent as to latent defects and nothing gave the landlord reason to believe that the pillar was faulty.
But - the Court provided some guidance as to landlord conduct that would have created a legal duty to protect the tenant from the defective pillar. For example, if the landlord intentionally concealed the pillar's defect, he would be liable for any of the tenant's injuries. Also, if the landlord failed to fix the pillar in a timely manner after discovering a defect, he could be liable for future damages.
The Court also recognized other unique scenarios where a legal duty may be imposed on a landlord. Local regulations or ordinances may require a landlord to make periodic inspections of certain items of personal or real property for latent defects. A landlord's failure to abide by these regulations may open him or her up to liability
At any rate, the decision is a win for landlords. The decision suggests that at minimum, New Jersey landlords need not extensively worry about claims about hidden and unknown defects after signing a lease. A New Jersey landlord, with some exceptions, does not have a baseline legal obligation to protect tenants from unknown defects on leased property.
If you are a landlord or a tenant who experienced an issue with a latent defect, your best option is to consult with an experienced attorney who can take the time to learn about the details of your case and then advise you of your rights. Finally, even if you have not yet experienced a problem, you may find it beneficial to consult with an attorney prior to signing any lease, especially if the lease is long-term. John Kundradt, a recent graduate of Rutgers Law School, who received a BA from Fordham University, researched and contributed to this blog.