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New laws for landlords.

In a recent decision, the Alaska Supreme Court expanded the duty of care that must be exercised by landlords toward their residential tenants. In doing so, the Supreme Court rejected the traditional common-law rule that limited a landlord's liability for negligence.

Subject to certain exceptions, the traditional common-law rule is that generally, landlords are not liable to their tenants for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on the leased premises. Tenants had to inspect for themselves and occupy the property as they found it (caveat emptor); the landlord enjoyed limited immunity from negligence lawsuits.

However, in Newton v. Magill, the Alaska Supreme Court determined that the contemporary duty of a landlord is to use reasonable care to discover and remedy conditions that present an unreasonable risk of harm under the circumstances. The case involved a tenant in Petersburg who slipped on a wooden entryway in her trailerpark home, broke an ankle and sued the landlord for negligence. The walkway was partly covered by an overhang, had no handrail and no "anti-slip" material on its surface.

The trial court judge entered summary judgment for the landlord because the injury occurred on the entryway that was for the sole use of the tenant and therefore, the tenant had the duty to maintain it in a safe condition. In other words, the landlord could not have breached the tenant's duty. Thus, the case did not go to a jury for a decision. The tenants appealed. They argued that in Petersburg, the wet climate causes wooden floorboards to become dangerously slippery and that permanent installation of anti-slip material is the general community standard.

The Supreme Court recognized that under the traditional common-law rule governing landlord liability, even the failure of the landlord to meet a community standard would be irrelevant. The Court decided, however, to reject the traditional rule in light of its interpretation of the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA), enacted by the Alaska Legislature in 1974 to modernize the law in this area, AS 34.03.010-380.

The Supreme Court found it necessary to reconcile different provisions of URLTA that specify the respective duties of tenants and landlords. As a result, the Court interpreted the tenant's duty to mean that tenants are responsible for light maintenance duties (e.g., cleaning, snow removal) pertaining to the safety of the premises that do not involve alteration of the premises; on the other hand, the landlord's duty relates to the inherent physical qualities of the premises.

The Court expanded the landlord's duty of care beyond the historical common law because it found that it would be inconsistent with a landlord's continuing duty to repair premises imposed under URLTA to exempt a landlord from liability who fails in this duty. Therefore, the case was returned to the lower court for a determination of whether the landlord breached his duty to the tenant to exercise reasonable care in light of all the circumstances regarding the condition of the walkway.

The Supreme Court did indicate, however, that the expanded duty of care does not make landlords liable as insurers, automatically liable for any injury that occurs. It must be proved that the landlord breached the duty of reasonable care under the circumstances in order to establish negligence. Further, the Court noted that a landlord should not be held liable in negligence unless he knew or reasonably should have known of a defect and had a reasonable opportunity to repair it.

Although the ultimate outcome in the Newton case has yet to be determined, the Supreme Court's decision to expand the duty of care that must be exercised by residential landlords in Alaska is an example of how the common law changes in light of contemporary conditions.

Daniel Patrick O'Tierney is an Anchorage attorney who serves as a public utilities commissioner for Alaska.
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Author:O'Tierney, Daniel Patrick
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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