Liability refers to your legal responsibility to do something. In this case, to keep your property safe for those living there – or even those just visiting. You can be sued for potentially large amounts of money if you are negligent in your duties. That is, if you could have reasonably done something to prevent an injury or destruction of property and you carelessly chose not to, you are responsible.
Of course, every situation is different and every jurisdiction has their own laws and unique judges interpreting them. However, in general, negligence can be determined by considering some basic points:
1. You must be responsible for the maintenance of the area or item that caused the injury or destruction of property.
2. It must be likely that the injury or destruction of property was going to happen. You can’t be held responsible if a reasonable person would not anticipate a problem.
3. It must be relatively easy or inexpensive to fix a problem. Would some simple anti-slip tape have solved the problem or would you have to reconstruct an entire walkway to prevent a particular slip?
4. Regardless of the ease or expense, if serious injuries and/or damage can occur, then you are obligated to fix the problem. Are you required to fix the deck that is about to crumble because of rotten wood as soon as possible even though it will cost $2,000? Yes. Someone’s life is at risk – not just the potential for a bruised arm.
5. You must be able to take reasonable action to keep something from happening. If someone cuts their foot on broken glass from a mirror that fell during a tenant’s move minutes after the glass shattered, you can’t be expected to have been psychic and standing there with a broom moments before it happens and thus able to prevent the injury.
6. Your neglect must lead to the injury or property damage. Did your delay in fixing a wobbly step cause a tenant’s son to slip and break his arm – or was it the slippery bubble solution they spilled all over their shoes and the stairs while playing outside?
You must make sure the property is fit to be lived in. This includes everything from keeping the property rodent free to having working locks on the doors, to making sure the hot water heater is functioning properly. These are basic things any reasonable person would consider essential in a home.
However, when renting a property to someone else, you must go beyond the basics. When something needs repair, you must act quickly to fix it. Sure, if it were your home, you might wait a week or two until tackling a broken step on your porch – but you simply cannot do that when it comes to rental property. You have a legal, contractual, obligation to maintain the residence in a reasonable, albeit quick, manner.
Certainly, there will be times when something cannot be immediately addressed. In cases where you must wait, be sure to limit your liability risk by notifying the tenant(s) in writing what the problem is, when it will be fixed, and warn them to be mindful of the situation. If appropriate and feasible, be sure to place warning signs around a problem area, or even block off access entirely.