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Tenants’ guests protected by Ohio’s landlord-tenant law

Ohio landlords have the same obligation to their tenants’ guests as they do to tenants to keep the common areas of their premises safe and sanitary, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled on Feb. 12, 2014.

In a unanimous decision, the court also held that the relevant provision in the Ohio Landlord-Tenant Act sets forth a specific standard of care, so a violation of the law automatically proves that a landlord has breached his or her duty (called negligence per se). Negligence per se does not automatically impose liability. Even if a landlord were legally negligent, an injured party would still have to demonstrate that the landlord’s breach of duty proximately caused the injured party to suffer damages.

The decision, authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, affirms the judgment of the Tenth District Court of Appeals and resolves a conflict between that appellate district and the Ninth District Court of Appeals. The case now returns to the trial court for reconsideration.

In June 2007, Lauren Mann, then 16, visited a friend, who was a tenant in an apartment building owned by Northgate Investors. She left her friend’s second-floor apartment around 11 p.m. To exit the building, she had to walk down an internal stairway, which was dark because the light fixtures were not working. She lost her balance at the bottom of the stairs and stumbled through a glass panel next to the exit door, suffering injuries.

Mann sued the building owners in October 2010. Northgate filed for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The court found in part that the Ohio law explaining landlord obligations (R.C. 5321.04) was intended to establish the duties between landlords and tenants only, not between landlords and the guests of tenants. The court also held that the dark stairwell was open and obvious and that a landlord’s duty is negated when the hazard is open and obvious to a guest.

Mann appealed to the Tenth District Court of Appeals. The appellate court reversed, stating that tenants’ guests are protected by the statute, the landlord’s violation was negligence per se, and the open-and-obvious argument does not apply under this negligence standard.

The Tenth District also certified a conflict to the Supreme Court because its opinion conflicted with the Ninth District’s decision in Shumaker v. Park Lane Manor of Akron, Inc. (2011). The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In his opinion, Justice Pfeifer explained that R.C. 5321.04(A)(2) requires landlords to “[m]ake all repairs and do whatever is reasonably necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition” and that R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) states that landlords must “[k]eep all common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition.”

Justice Pfeifer referred to a 1994 Ohio Supreme Court decision (Shump v. First Continental-Robinwood Assocs.), which held that a landlord’s obligations extend to the guests of a tenant. The court stated in Shump, “A landlord owes the same duties to persons lawfully upon the leased premises as the landlord owes to the tenant.”

In the Ninth District conflict case, a guest was injured in a common area. The appellate court held that the landlord’s responsibilities did not extend to the guest because Shump limited the law’s protection to guests “‘upon the leased premises.’”

Justice Pfeifer wrote that the phrase “lawfully upon the leased premises” from Shump is not limiting, adding:

“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.”

In addition, Justice Pfeifer noted that earlier cases have established that violations of sections (A)(1) and (A)(2) of the statute constitute negligence per se. He concluded that the same standard applies to section (A)(3) to keep common areas safe and sanitary.

2012-1600. Mann v. Northgate Investors, L.L.C., Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-455.

View oral argument video of this case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Content courtesy of Court News Ohio.

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