Ohio Supreme Court Makes It Clear: Landlords Must Keep Common Areas Safe and Sanitary
Published on: Tuesday, December 15th, 2015
by Matthew W. Onest, Esq.
One of the more pressing and perplexing issues facing landlords throughout the United States is the scope and reach of their duties to keep rental premises in a safe and sanitary condition. A landlord must grapple with how far his or her duties extend with regard to his or her tenants. However, a landlord must also grapple with whether those same duties extend to the guests of his or her tenants. In 2014, the Ohio Supreme Court sought to answer these questions as they relate to Ohio landlords.
Ohio law provides a statutory baseline for the rights and obligations of residential landlords and tenants. The Ohio Landlord Tenant Act is located in Chapter 5321 of the Ohio Revised Code. Thus, while a residential lease may enlarge the scope of the parties’ rights and obligations, the lease cannot shrink or modify those statutory-baseline standards. One such statutory obligation is the obligation to “[k]eep all common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition.” R.C. 5321.04(A)(3).
However, that provision does not specify whether the landlord owes that duty to the tenant’s guest, who is properly on the leased premises. This is an important question because a landlord is generally liable for any injuries proximately caused by the landlord’s failure to fulfill his or her statutory obligations.
Duty Extends to Tenants’ Guests
The Ohio Supreme Court sought to answer this question once and for all in Mann v. Northgate Investors, L.L.C., 138 Ohio St.3d 175, 5 N.E.3d 594 (2014).
The Court ultimately decided that a landlord’s duty to keep common areas safe and sanitary, as provided in R.C. 5321.04(A)(3), extends to his or her tenants’ guests who are properly on the premises and who are injured as a proximate result of the landlord’s failure to keep the common areas safe and clean.
The Court based its decision on Ohio’s common law which predated the Landlord Tenant Act, meaning judicial decisions which shaped the scope of a landlord’s liability. In 1994, the Court had acknowledged that the common law on this issue did not distinguish between a landlord’s duties to his or her tenant and that tenant’s lawful guests. Shump v. First Continental-Robinwood Assocs., 71 Ohio St.3d 414, 644 N.E.2d 291 (1994).
The Court also acknowledged that Chapter 5321 of the Ohio Revised Code is presumed to have embraced the common law in existence on the date of the statute’s enactment, including decisions relating to duties owed to a tenant’s guests. Relying upon Shump and R.C. 5321.12, which provides that any party may recover damages for the breach of a landlord-tenant statutory duty, the Court, in Mann, emphatically held that a tenant’s guest benefits from the protections of R.C. 5321.04(A). Mann, 138 Ohio St.3d 175, ¶ 23.
The question still remains: how does this decision affect an Ohio landlord?
The most significant impact on a landlord is a guest’s use of the doctrine of negligence per se. Negligence per se is a legal doctrine whereby a party, who is injured as the direct and proximate result of another’s failure to abide by a statutory duty, may negate the use of the open and obvious doctrine. The open and obvious defense is often used by a real property owner to negate liability based on the injured party’s knowledge of the dangerous condition. If the injured party knew or should have known of the dangerous condition, he or she cannot recover against the real property owner for the injuries caused by that dangerous condition.
Negligence per se removes the property owner’s ability to argue open and obvious condition. Instead, the property owner must raise other defenses, most notably his or her lack of notice of the condition. In Mann, the Ohio Supreme Court found that injuries caused by a landlord’s failure to keep common areas safe and sanitary invoke negligenceper se. Id. at ¶ 32. Thus, a landlord may not argue that the condition in the common area was open and obvious to the injured guests in order to avoid liability.
The landlord is left to argue, principally, that the landlord was not aware of the condition, which is a difficult hurdle to overcome because a landlord is obligated to inspect the common area for purposes of repairs and cleaning.
Originally published at SES