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Are Landlords Responsible for Injuries Tenants Sustain as a Result of a Vermin Infestation?

When tenants live in close proximity within a multi-unit dwelling, it is common for the building to become infested with mice, bugs, or other vermin. Unfortunately, such infestations can pose a number of risks to the building’s occupants. In the case of Mangan v. F. C. Pilgrim & Co.,the Illinois Appellate Court addresses the question of whether landlords are responsible for injuries that occur within a tenant’s apartment as a result of an infestation related to unsanitary conditions in the common areas.

The Facts

On January 31, 1968, 83-year-old Catherine Mangan suffered a serious hip injury in the kitchen of her Oak Park apartment, which was located in a 38-unit building owned by Herbert J. Johnson and managed by F. C. Pilgrim & Company.

At about 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, Ms. Mangan’s daughter-in-law visited the apartment. Ms. Mangan was healthy and in overall good condition at that time. When her daughter-in-law telephoned later in the day, however, there was no answer. Because this was highly unusual, the daughter-in-law then telephoned Ms. Mangan’s upstairs neighbor, who reported that she had heard moaning in the unit below. Ms. Mangan’s son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughters arrived at the apartment to investigate shortly thereafter, sometime after 7:00 p.m. Edward Mangan used his key to unlock the door but was unable to open it because his mother’s body was in the way. As she lay on the floor moaning in pain, he was able to push the door open wide enough for his daughter to slip through.

Ms. Mangan told her son that she had been taking biscuits out of the oven when she was frightened by a mouse and fell. The family observed that the oven door was open, there were biscuits in the kitchen, and food was simmering on the stovetop. Her right arm and leg had visible friction burns, and her left leg was at an odd angle. The family called an ambulance and Ms. Mangan was taken the hospital, where she had surgery on her fractured left hip two days after the fall. Although she had been healthy prior to the accident, Ms. Mangan was hospitalized for more than two months following the operation.

There had been numerous reports of a vermin infestation in Ms. Mangan’s building. Her daughter-in-law had seen rodents on the property, and at least three tenants had repeatedly witnessed rodents in the building. Additionally, several tenants had heard scratching in the walls and seen mice caught in traps. One tenant had even seen Ms. Mangan dispose of a mouse in the building’s incinerator.

A shared garbage chute, which tenants used to dispose of their trash, was the source of the rodent problem. Trash traveled down the chute and into the basement, where it was burned. Additionally, incinerators were located behind the building for further trash disposal.

At least four tenants had complained about a vermin infestation to the building’s janitor, owner, and management company. Furthermore, a secretary at F. C. Pilgrim recalled that Ms. Mangan had called to complain about mice more than a year prior to her fall. The company hired an exterminator, George Hoffman, to address the problem; one of Hoffman’s employees visited the building each month and went door to door to inquire about the tenants’ rodent problems. When renters answered the door and made a complaint, he would use poison or traps in their apartments. However, Mr. Hoffman noted that traps do not completely eradicate a mouse problem; he also noted that garbage provides a breeding ground for mice, which multiply rapidly.

Seeking damages for her broken hip, Ms. Mangan filed a lawsuit against building owner Herbert J. Johnson and property manager F. C. Pilgrim. In her suit, Ms. Mangan complained that the owner and property manager had been negligent (careless) by failing to safely maintain the building’s common areas. She also complained that the building was in violation of the local Oak Park Housing Code, which prohibits rodent infestations.

Negligence & Landlord Liability for Injuries

To win a lawsuit alleging 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, the plaintiff is unable to win.) Furthermore, the plaintiff must show that the defendant failed to uphold his/her duty and the injury was caused by this failure.

In general, Illinois landlords are not responsible for repairing or maintaining a rental property except in instances where an established agreement—for instance, a lease—obligates them to do so. However, an exception is made in cases where the landlord knows of (or should know of) latent defects on the premises. Additionally, landlords are responsible for using ordinary care to ensure that common areas such as entryways and parking lots remain in safe condition at a rental property. Moreover, if a statute or ordinance imposes a duty to maintain, the landlord is responsible for maintaining the apartment. In this case, the Oak Park Housing Code requires landlords to keep their properties in “safe and sanitary condition.” It also states that landlords are responsible for extermination when a vermin infestation is present in common areas and/or in two or more units of a multi-dwelling building. To prove negligence in a case involving violation of a local ordinance such as the Oak Park Housing Code, plaintiffs must prove two things. First, they must show that they are an intended beneficiary of the ordinance that was violated; second, they must demonstrate that they suffered a type of harm the ordinance was intended to protect against.

The Decision

Ms. Mangan’s case went to trial and the jury awarded a verdict of $20,000 against Mr. Johnson, the building owner; the jury also found that F. C. Pilgrim was not liable. Mr. Johnson then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court when his post-trial motion was denied.

Mr. Johnson argued that he was not responsible for his tenant’s injuries because Illinois landlords are not obligated to maintain individual rental units in safe condition. Therefore, he had no duty to protect Ms. Mangan from injury while she was inside of her rental unit. Furthermore, Mr. Johnson noted that Ms. Mangan’s lawsuit did not allege any latent defects to the unit that would have made him responsible for maintenance.

Ms. Mangan disagreed, saying the landlord had a duty to maintain the building’s common areas in safe condition—including the incinerator system and the walls in which the rodents lived. Because Mr. Johnson did not properly maintain these areas, which were under his control, the entire building (including her apartment) was overrun with mice. According to Ms. Mangan, this negligence caused her to fall when she was startled by a mouse that appeared in her apartment.

The appellate court agreed that Mr. Johnson was responsible for ensuring safe conditions in the building’s common areas. Furthermore, the court said that although Ms. Mangan’s injury occurred inside of her apartment, it resulted from the landlord’s negligent maintenance of the common areas and thus he was liable.

The appellate court also addressed the issue of the landlord’s duty to maintain a safe, sanitary property in accordance with the Oak Park Housing Code. The court said that since Ms. Mangan lived in Mr. Johnson’s building, she was included in the group of people the code was meant to protect. Similarly, the court said her injury was the type of harm the ordinance had been enacted to prevent by requiring landlords to exterminate in cases of vermin infestation. Since Mr. Johnson did not fulfill his duty to maintain a safe and sanitary property, and since Ms. Mangan incurred her injuries because of the resulting vermin infestation, the court agreed that he was responsible.

Mr. Johnson further argued that because Ms. Mangan’s injuries were not foreseeable, the mouse infestation was not the legal cause of her injury. In other words, Mr. Johnson claimed that his tenant’s injury was not a natural or likely consequence of his negligent building maintenance and therefore he could not be held liable.

Again, the appellate court disagreed with Mr. Johnson’s rationale, noting there are many foreseeable risks associated with the presence of vermin, including disease and bites. The court also said that being startled is a common response to seeing a rodent, especially for an elderly woman living alone, and thus Ms. Mangan’s response to a mouse in her apartment was foreseeable. Because of this, her injury fell within the scope of the landlord’s responsibility.

For all of these reasons, the appellate court upheld the verdict.

Conclusion

In most cases, Illinois landlords are not responsible when tenants are injured within their rental units. However, property owners can be held liable when injuries are directly related to their negligent maintenance of common areas or shared infrastructure such as plumbing, trash chutes, and ventilation systems. Property owners are also responsible for injuries that occur within the unit if they have a duty to maintain under a local ordinance or state statute. For instance, both Oak Park and Chicago have comprehensive statutes that impose a broad duty to maintain.

Accordingly, landlords are often liable for injuries that happen within apartments in Chicago and Oak Park. They may also be responsible for injuries in other cities depending on local law and whether the injury was caused by the landlord’s failure to maintain a common area.

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