Merit Decision. Landlord Owes Duty to Tenant’s Guest to Keep Common Area Safe. Mann v. Northgate Investors, L.L.C.

Update: Plaintiff’s counsel reports this case was settled on September 16, 2015.  Settlement terms are confidential.

On February 12, 2014 the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in Mann v. Northgate Investors, L.L.C.,2014-Ohio-455. In a unanimous decision written by Justice Pfeifer, the Court held that a landlord owes a statutory duty to tenants’ guests under Ohio’s Landlord Tenant Law to keep common areas safe. The only limitation is that guests must be properly on the premises.  The Court also held that a breach of R.C. 5321.04 (A)(3), which provides that landlords must keep the premises in a safe and sanitary condition, constitutes negligence per se. The case was argued April 24, 2013.

Case Background

Then sixteen year old Lauren Mann was visiting a friend who was a tenant at the Defendant’s Northgate Apartment. Mann had arrived at noon, and left around 11 p.m. The friend lived on the second floor and the only way out of the apartment was down two flights of stairs. According to Mann’s testimony, there was no lighting in the hall or stairway.  The existing light fixtures weren’t working. Despite the darkness, Mann decided to go down the stairs. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she stumbled through a glass panel on one side of the exterior door and was injured.

Procedural Posture

Mann sued Northgate for negligence for failure to maintain adequate lighting at night, creating a danger to residents and guests.  She argued that R.C. 5321.04 imposed a duty on a landlord to keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition and to keep the premises safe.  The trial court granted summary judgment to Northgate, on the ground that the statute only established duties between landlords and tenants, not tenant’s guests. Additionally, the court held that the danger in this case was open and obvious, and that Mann had failed to prove causation.

The Tenth District Court of Appeals 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, that violation of that provision constituted negligence per se, and that the open and obvious doctrine does not apply when a landlord is negligent per se. The court of appeals also held there was sufficient evidence of causation to create a fact question. Read the oral argument preview of the case here, and the analysis of that argument here.

Conflict Certification

The Court accepted the case on conflict certification.  The certified question was  “whether 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?”

Short answer: yes.

Key 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

(1) Comply with the requirements of all applicable building, housing, health, and safety codes that materially affect health and safety;

(2) Make all repairs and do whatever is reasonably necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition;

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

Shroades v. Rental Homes, Inc. 68 Ohio St.2d 20, 427 N.E.2d 774 (1981)

A landlord can be liable in tort for injuries resulting from the landlord’s failure to meet the obligations imposed by R.C. 5321.04. Violation of a statute such as R.C. 5321.04(A)(2) that sets forth specific duties constitutes negligence per se. (this part of the case was not modified by Sikora)

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

A landlord’s failure to meet the statutory duties under R.C. 5321.04(A)(1) negates the open and obvious doctrine.

Merit Decision

This case is another step in a general clean-up of the changes in landlord tenant law since the 1974 enactment of R.C. 5321, the Landlord Tenant Statute.  In the bad old days, landlords out of possession and control were pretty much not responsible for anything-to tenants or their guests.  The statute made things more balanced between landlords and tenants.  The Court notes all this at the beginning of its analysis. The opinion is really a walk through of how the law in this area has evolved, and really is not very complicated, since most of the heavy lifting in this area has already taken place.

Shroades v. Rental Homes was the case that first made it clear that if a landlord failed to meet the obligations of R.C. 5324.01, that landlord could be liable in tort for any resulting injuries.  Shroades went one step further, reasoning that a violation of a statute that sets forth specific duties constitutes negligence per se. The Court determined that  R.C. 5321.04(A)(2) did set forth specific duties, so a violation of that provision meant negligence per se. Shroades also required that the tenant would have to prove that the landlord either had notice of the defective condition of the rental property, knew about it, or that the tenant had made reasonable but unsuccessful attempts to give notice.

Shump v. First Contintental-Robinwood Assocs. held that a landlord’s common law and statutory obligations extended not just to a tenant, but also to a tenant’s guests.  Before that, a tenant’s guest was in a kind of legal limbo as far as landlord liability was concerned. Traditionally, under the common law entrant classifications, social guests are only licensees.

Conflict Case

The conflict case in this certified conflict case, Shumaker v. Park Lane Manor of Akron, Inc., 2011-Ohio-1052 (9th Dist.), held that a landlord owes any guest of the tenant’s who is injured in an area not under the tenant’s exclusive control only the duty owed to a licensee, which is to warn of hidden dangers known to the landlord, but not the guest. Schumacher interpreted the holding in Shump as being limited to injuries occurring only in the leased part of the premises.  The Court rejects this interpretation in Mann.

A Baby Step Forward

Shump already held that a landlord owed a tenant’s guest the same protections the landlord owed the tenant. In this case the Court held that those protections were not limited to the leased premises, but clearly extended to the common areas as well.

“We thus conclude that Shump should in no way be interpreted so as to prevent a tenant’s guest from benefiting from the protections of R.C. 5321.04(A) simply because he or she is in a common area of the leased premises. A landlord owes to a tenant’s guest the same duty that it owes a tenant in regard to R.C. 5321.04(A)(3): to keep the common area in a safe and sanitary condition. ”

Tort Implication of a Statutory Violation

The last question before the Court was the effect of a violation of R.C.5321.04(A)(3).  As my first year torts students know, a violation of a public-safety statute can be viewed as creating strict liability, negligence per se, or just some evidence of negligence. In Sikora v. Wetzel the Court rejected the argument that R.C. 5321.04(A)(1) is a strict liability offense. That same reasoning would surely apply to the other sections.  So, the remaining choices are negligence per se or just evidence of negligence. Sikora  stated that when a statute sets forth a general, abstract description of a duty, violation of that statute is just evidence of negligence.  But if the statute sets forth a positive and definite standard of care, then a violation is negligence per se.  Sikora held that R.C. 5321.04(A)(1) and (A)(2) were specific enough to impose negligence per se.  In Mann the Court concludes the same thing about a violation of R.C.. 5321.04(A)(3).  Thanks to the earlier finding in Robinson v. Bates that also means the open-and-obvious doctrine (a no duty rule in Ohio, not a defense) has no application.

Now What?

The case gets sent back for a trial—summary judgment in favor of the landlord was reversed. Essentially, the court of appeals decision in the case was affirmed.

Syllabus

None.  This is getting too commonplace. How about this?

A landlord owes a tenant’s guest the same duty to keep the common area in a safe and sanitary condition that it owes a tenant pursuant to R.C. 5321.04(A)(3). A breach of that duty constitutes negligence per se. Shroades, Shump, and Sikora followed.

Concluding Observations

Here’s what I wrote after the argument:

“This looks like a clear and unanimous loss for the defense.  The defense view that the (A)(3) section of the statute shouldn’t apply to tenant’s guests in the common area was greeted with skepticism by all who spoke.  The Court has already held that (A)(1) and (2) apply,  and has already  held that landlords owe the same duty to tenants’ guests as they do their tenants, so this is really only a baby step.  And it really doesn’t make sense to limit the landlord’s duties to tenant’s guests just to the leased premises where after all the tenants have more control than they do in the common areas.”

‘Nuff said.

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