In Virginia, landlords have a legal duty to ensure that their tenants are reasonably safe. This duty applies to private areas, like apartment units, as well as swimming pools, stairwells, parking lots, and other common areas. Falls, dog bites, and swimming pool drownings are the most common premises liability injuries. Landlords also have a duty to take security measures (like adequate lighting) to prevent certain third-party crimes, like assaults.
These incidents usually cause extremely serious injuries, such as head injuries. These wounds may be permanent. If brain cells die, they may never regenerate.
Because of the serious nature of these injuries, and the landlord’s clear responsibility to prevent them, a Virginia injury attorney can often obtain substantial compensation for these victims. This compensation usually includes money for economic losses such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses such as pain and suffering.
Duty of Care
Like most states, Virginia uses a common-law classification system to determine the level of legal responsibility in these cases. This system places a victim into one of three categories:
- Invitee: Paying tenants are invitees. So are prospective tenants. These individuals have permission to be on the property, and their presence benefits owners. Since the relationship is close, the duty of care is high. In these situations, landlords usually have a duty of reasonable care.
- Licensee: A guest of an apartment tenant is usually a licensee. Although these people have permission to be on the property, at least indirectly, their presence does not benefit the landlord. Therefore, landlords only have a duty to warn about latent (hidden) defects such as an uneven step.
- Trespasser: If the victim did not have permission to be on the land and the victim’s presence did not benefit the owner, the landlord or other owner usually owes no legal duty. Tales of injured burglars who sue homeowners and win are mostly urban legends.
Social guests at a rented property are typically licensees, but social guests at the owned property are usually invitees. The owner benefits non-economically, because of the social interaction.
Responsibility is only one piece of the puzzle. Landlords are financially responsible for damages if they knew about the hazard which caused the injury. Victims/plaintiffs must establish knowledge by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). So, it does not take much proof to establish this point.
In fact, plaintiffs don’t need to prove actual knowledge. Constructive knowledge (that is, when the defendant should have known) is sufficient.
Assume there is a slight depression on Jerry’s front walkway. Water collects in it when it rains. Jerry has told the landlord about the problem several times. The landlord keeps promising to fix it “eventually.” One night, the temperature drops and the standing water becomes ice. Before the sun comes up, Jerry goes out to walk his dog. He slips and falls on the ice.
Since the landlord knew about the underlying problem, and the landlord also knew the temperature would drop, he is probably responsible for Jerry’s medical bills and other damages,
Direct evidence of actual knowledge is also admissible. Examples include “cleanup on aisle two” announcements and open repair orders. This evidence usually surfaces during a lawsuit’s discovery process. During discovery, both parties have a duty to put all their evidentiary cards on the table.
Common Defenses in Premises Liability Cases
Contributory negligence, in one form or another, is probably the most common premises liability defense. In the above example, Jerry’s landlord might argue that Jerry did not watch where he was stepping. So, his fall was his own fault.
However, in the above illustration, the facts do not support that conclusion. It’s almost impossible to see ice patches in the dark. That’s especially true if the ice in question was clear, translucent black ice. Furthermore, Jerry had no legal duty to use a flashlight or other light source.
In dog bite claims, comparative fault usually takes the form of a provocation defense. The insurance company claims the victim provoked the dog into attacking. But this defense only has limited applicability. People cannot accidentally provoke dogs. Instead, provocation is intentional. Furthermore, provocation is usually a physical act. Verbal teasing, no matter how mean and aggressive, is usually insufficient.
Call Today for a Free Consultation
When renters are injured in or near their homes, their landlords may very well be responsible for damages. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Richmond, contact Geoff McDonald & Associates, P.C. You have a limited amount of time to act.