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When someone falls victim at a rental property, who is legally at fault?

At least eight guests were injured in Neptune Beach, Florida when tenants threw a Fourth of July party and the deck collapsed under the 15-20 people reportedly standing on it.  Fortunately no guests were killed, but the eight injuries begs the question: who is legally liable?

According to the tenants, they previously expressed concerns with the landlord about the condition of the deck, and the landlord failed to reinforce or update it.  But an adjuster will look into many factors when conducting their investigation, from deterioration of the deck materials and the deck’s unstable structure to the tenants allowing too many bodies on a deck known to be structurally weak.  This is where the tenant could be held responsible – they were clearly aware of the deck being unsafe, because they were the ones who informed the landlord in the first place.

Tenants often forget to consider how they may have responsibility or liability, and assume that they are absolved because the rental unit “is not their property,” even when the lease agreement clearly states tenant responsibilities like removing ice from sidewalk, checking smoke detectors’ functionality and changing air filters every three months.  While this may seem straightforward, much depends on the circumstances around the given situation.  Legal liability is never as clear as it seems, especially when the responsibility in question is not outlined in writing and the responsible party must be identified by “common sense” or what a “reasonable person” might believe.

Landlords do not always have knowledge of what is happening with their property once it is rented to a tenant and if an unauthorized person or trespasser happens to enter the property, it may prevent the landlord from being liable.  Often in the law, if there is proof that one of the parties of the lawsuit did in fact have knowledge of a situation but chose to ignore it, it could leave that party the bearer of the liability.

Lawyers use the term “comparative fault” or “comparative negligence” to discuss what proportion of the responsibility falls on each party, and in court the damages are sometimes assessed to each party based on this proption of responsibility.  The upkeep of rental properties is twofold: the tenant must maintain the property on a day-to-day basis and be communicative and action-oriented in order to inform the owner of property deficiencies, and landlords must keep the property in a safe and habitable condition.  Both parties must, of course, honor the responsibilities outlined in the lease contract they signed.

But landlords should always remember that they are inherently more likely to be sued than tenants, because they have a highly visible, non-portable asset that plaintiffs can try to collect on – the rental property itself.

Landlords’ rental property insurance policies generally include liability coverage, and landlords should require their tenants to hold renters’ insurance and provide proof of the insurance.  Insurance matters; uninsured landlords and tenants can be held personally liable, and legal battles can be lengthy and expensive even for the insured.

Watch the full story about the balcony collapse below:

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