Oral Argument Preview: A Landlord’s Duty to a Tenant’s Guest in a Common Area. Lauren J. Mann v. Northgate Investors LLC, d.b.a. Northgate Apartment.

Update: The Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in this case on February 12, 2014.  Read the analysis here.

On April 24, 2013, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of Lauren J. Mann v. Northgate Investors LLC, d.b.a. Northgate Apartment, 2012-1600. The case is before the Court on conflict certification. The Court will hear this case in Logan County, as part of the Court’s off-site program.

Certified Question

Whether the landlord owes the statutory duties of R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) to a tenant’s guest properly on the premises but on the common area stairs at the time of injury?

Case Background

Plaintiff Lauren J. Mann, along with two friends, went to visit Michelina Markiewicz at her apartment, leased from Defendant Northgate Investors. (Northgate) Markiewicz had a second-floor apartment, and the only way out of the building was down two flights of stairs. The common area outside the apartment and the stairs were both unlit. When Mann left the apartment, she had to go down two flights of stairs in total darkness. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she stumbled through the glass plates on one side of the exterior door and was injured. Mann sued, alleging that Northgate negligently failed to maintain adequate lighting in the stairwell, creating a danger to residents and guests. Mann presented evidence indicating that prior complaints had been made to Northgate about non-working lights in the stairwell, but Northgate did not correct the problem. The trial court concluded that R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) did not apply to Mann’s case and granted summary judgment to Northgate because Mann had not established any duty owed to her, nor had she presented any evidence of causation.

Court of Appeals Decision

The Tenth District reversed, finding that Mann’s evidence was sufficient to create genuine issues of material fact for trial.  The appeals court concluded that R.C. 5321.04(A)(3)  applies to a tenant’s guests in any common area, and that Northgate was negligent per se in failing to properly maintain a common area in its apartment building.  The appeals court also held that the open and obvious doctrine did not negate Northgate’s liability.

Conflict Case  

Shumaker v. Park Lane Manor of Akron, Inc., 2011-Ohio-1052 (9th Dist.).   

The Ninth District Court of Appeals held that a landlord did not owe a tenant’s guest the same duties as it owed its tenants. Because the guest was not injured on the leased premises, but rather on the road outside the apartment building, the landlord did not have a duty to her. Accordingly, the open and obvious doctrine applied.

Northgate’s Arguments

Northgate argues that R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) does not impose a separate statutory obligation on a landlord for injuries to a tenant’s guest while in a common area.  When in common areas, which are under a landlord’s exclusive possession and control, a landlord only owes the tenant’s guest a common law duty of ordinary care. A landlord owes no duty to an invitee for an open an obvious danger. Even if the Court finds that the statute does apply to a tenant’s guest in a common area, Northgate argues that a violation does not impose negligence per se because the statute only embodies a common law duty of reasonable care and does not set forth a specific statutory obligation separate and distinct from the common law duty. Negligence per se liability is limited to situations when the guest is in the tenant’s leased space, and imposition of negligence per se beyond that is not warranted under the language of R.C. 5321.04(A)(3). The Court should answer the certified question in the negative.

Mann’s Arguments

Mann argues that the Tenth District Court of Appeals properly held that R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) imposes liability on a landlord for injuries to a tenant’s guest in the common areas of the building, and that a violation by the landlord of this statutory duty imposes negligence per se upon the landlord. Therefore the “open and obvious” doctrine is not an available defense. Mann urges the Court to find that a landlord owes the same duties to persons lawfully upon the leased premises, including the common areas, as the landlord owes the tenant. The use of the stairwell by tenants and guests is not only expected; it is mandatory, as it is the only way to leave the apartment. Therefore, because as a tenant Markiewicz was entitled to have the internal stairwell lighted, her guests were entitled to the same.

Amicus Curiae

The Ohio Association for Justice filed an amicus brief in support of Mann, and will share time with Mann at argument. OAJ argues that there is no good reason to pull R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) out of R.C. 5321.04(A) for disparate treatment. Rather, sound public policy warrants finding that a landlord’s duties under R.C. 5324.01(A)(3) should be owed to both tenants and their guests. The purpose of R.C. 5321.04(A) is to protect all people who use rented residential premises. OAJ urges the Court answer the certified question in the affirmative and affirm the judgment of the Tenth District Court of Appeals.  

Relevant Precedent  

R.C. 5321.04 – Landlord Obligations under Landlords and Tenants Act

(A) A landlord who is a party to a rental agreement shall do all of the following

(3) Keep all common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition.

Stackhouse v. Close, 83 Ohio St. 339 (1911); Marqua v. Martin, 109 Ohio St. 56 (1923)

Both pre-Landlord and Tenant Act cases hold that a landlord may be held liable to a tenant’s guest for the breach of a statutory duty imposed on the landlord.

Shump v. First Continental-Robinwood Assoc., 1994-Ohio-427 (syllabus)

A landlord owes the same duties to persons lawfully upon the leased premises as the landlord owes to the tenant. (Stackhouse v. Close [1911], 83 Ohio St. 339,  94 N.E. 746, paragraph one of the syllabus; 2 Restatement of the Law 2d, Torts [1965], Sections 355 to 362, approved and adopted; and Restatement of the Law 2d, Property [1977], Sections 17.6 and 19.1, approved.)

Sikora v. Wenzel, 2000-Ohio-406 (syllabus)

A landlord’s violation of the duties imposed by R.C. 5321.04 (A)(1) or 5321.04(A)(2) constitutes negligence per se, but a landlord will be excused from liability under either section if he neither knew nor should have known of the factual circumstances that caused the violation. (Shroades v. Rental Homes, Inc. [1981], 68 Ohio St.2d 20, 22 O.O.3d 152, 427 N.E.2d 774, clarified.)

 

Robinson v. Bates, 2006-Ohio-6362 ¶23

Student Contributor: Elizabeth Chesnut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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