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Are Landlords Liable When Tenants’ Guests Are Injured Falling Down the Stairs at a Rental Property?

Renters are often unaware of the protocol they must follow when their home or apartment is in need of repair. Unfortunately, this means serious issues sometimes go unaddressed, which can result in injuries to tenants and their guests. In the case of Gilley v. Kiddel, the Illinois Appellate Court addresses the question of whether landlords are responsible for injuries that occur when a tenant’s guest falls on a hazardous stairway within the rental unit.

The Facts

In October 2001, Mr. Shipman and his roommates moved into an Illinois apartment owned and managed by Mr. Kiddel. When Mr. Shipman inspected the space prior to moving in, he didn’t notice any problems with the unit’s stairway. However, he said the steps were covered in carpeting that he described as a “temporary covering.” Several weeks after moving in, he stapled the carpeting to the stairs because several people had fallen. He hoped the landlord would replace the carpeting and provide “something more permanent,” but this never occurred. At some point during the following months, Mr. Shipman also secured a loose handrail in the same stairway.

On May 11, 2002, Mr. Shipman’s girlfriend, Ms. Gilley, visited the apartment. As she walked down the staircase, she lost her footing and fell, breaking her ankle. She hadn’t noticed anything unusual about the steps that night but did say the carpeting “came loose” as she descended. (The handrail, which she held as she fell, remained secure.) The following day, she noticed that the carpeting was rippled. Mr. Shipman, however, did not notice anything atypical about the stairs after his girlfriend’s fall. Mr. Kiddel was notified about the accident, but he was not told about any specific problem with the stairs.

Mr. Shipman believed he had also told the landlord about people falling on the staircase prior to his girlfriend’s fall, though Mr. Kiddel denies ever learning about previous incidents. Mr. Shipman also said he “implied” to Mr. Kiddel that he wanted the carpeting to be altered, and he suggested (but did not directly state) that he was displeased with the overall quality of the apartment’s stairway. However, Mr. Kiddel claims the tenants never complained about the stairway. Furthermore, he says the tenants never requested authorization to repair the stairs. (The lease prohibited them from making any alterations or repairs without the landlord’s consent.)

Though Mr. Kiddel’s role as owner-manager included receiving phone calls from tenants regarding issues with their rental units, he hired contractors to make the vast majority of repairs. He stated that the stairway in Mr. Shipman’s unit was in good condition when he purchased the property in July 2000, and he had never repaired or made changes to the carpeting prior to Ms. Gilley’s fall. Additionally, he hadn’t observed any issues with the steps during the 25-50 times he’d used them. He also noted that he would have made repairs had he noticed any problems.

Seeking damages for her broken ankle, Ms. Gilley filed a lawsuit against the landlord alleging negligence (carelessness). Specifically, she complained that Mr. Kiddel had a duty to protect her from hazardous conditions in the apartment, was responsible for the stairway’s poor condition, and was thus liable for her injuries.

Negligence & Landlord Liability for Injuries

To prove negligence, plaintiffs must demonstrate that the defendant has a duty to protect them from injury. (If the defendant has no duty to protect the plaintiff, it is not possible for the plaintiff to win a lawsuit.) Furthermore, the plaintiff must show that the defendant failed to uphold his/her duty and the injury was directly caused by this failure.

In general, Illinois landlords are not responsible for injuries caused by a defective or dangerous condition at a rental property that is under the tenant’s control. However, there are six exceptions to this rule: when the landlord knows (or should know) of a latent defect that exists at the time of leasing, when the landlord fraudulently conceals a dangerous condition, when the defect causing harm amounts to a nuisance, when the landlord is contracted to keep the premises in repair via the terms of the lease, when the landlord violates a law that is intended to protect the tenant, and when the landlord voluntarily undertakes to render a service.

The Decision

In response to the lawsuit against him, Mr. Kiddel moved for summary judgment, arguing that the evidence was insufficient for a jury to find in Ms. Gilley’s favor, even if interpreted in the light most advantageous to her. The motion was granted. The trial court then denied Ms. Gilley’s motion to reconsider but allowed her to file an amended complaint. The new complaint alleged that Mr. Kiddel had a duty to protect Ms. Gilley because the lease required him to keep the property in good repair and he had failed to do so. Mr. Kiddel moved for dismissal and the trial court agreed, saying the landlord had no duty to his tenant’s guest.

Ms. Gilley appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing that the terms of her boyfriend’s lease required Mr. Kiddel to make repairs at the apartment. However, the court disagreed, noting the lease stated tenants were to “maintain and keep the [demised premises] in as good condition and repair as the same shall be upon taking possession.” In other words, the duty to repair the apartment fell to the renter and not the landlord.

Ms. Gilley also argued that the following language from the lease imposed a duty on Mr. Kiddel: “No alterations or repairs may be performed in said apartment without landlord approval.” Again, the appellate court disagreed with Ms. Gilley’s rationale, saying the lease does not imply the landlord has a duty to make repairs. Rather, it says that tenants cannot make repairs until they are given permission to do so. Furthermore, the court said there was no evidence the landlord would have withheld permission to repair the staircase had the tenants asked.

In addition to the arguments above, Ms. Gilley claimed Mr. Kiddel had a duty to protect her because the lease stated that the “landlord shall have reasonable opportunity to inspect said premises, and do any repairing or other work thereon which he shall deem necessary for the preservation of the property.” The court once again disagreed, noting that reserving the right to enter does not create a duty to repair the property. Because Mr. Shipman and his roommates had control of the premises, they—not Mr. Kiddel—were responsible for protecting guests and thus could be held liable for their injuries.

Finally, Ms. Gilley argued that Mr. Kiddel had a duty to maintain the apartment due to his history of making repairs. She supported this claim by referring to a prior case, Jones v. Chicago Housing Authority, in which the housing authority was held liable for failing to repair a window through which a child fell. However, the appellate court rejected her argument. In the Jones case, the housing authority had a demonstrated record of making repairs to the property in question; furthermore, there was no clear responsibility for repairs in the Jones case, whether via the lease terms or some other agreement. Because Mr. Shipman’s lease specified that the tenants were responsible for repairs, because there was no history of the landlord making repairs during their tenancy, and because the tenants had taken it upon themselves to make prior repairs to the stairs and handrail, Mr. Kiddel did not have a duty to repair the staircase.

For all of the reasons discussed above, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision. Since there was no basis upon which Mr. Kiddel could be held liable for Ms. Gilley’s injuries, the appellate court agreed that it had been proper for the trial court to dismiss the amended complaint.

Conclusion

Under ordinary circumstances, Illinois landlords are not liable for injuries a tenant’s guest sustains on their property. Because the renters control the property, they (not landlords) have a duty to protect their guests. However, there are a number of exceptions to this general rule. For instance, in a situation where the lease stipulates that the landlord must make repairs, the landlord would be responsible for injuries that result from a defect at the property.

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