When dangerous or defective conditions arise at their rental property, tenants typically notify the landlord or property manager and request repairs. Many of these issues are promptly fixed. However, this is not always the case. Problems sometimes go unaddressed for long periods of time, even when the landlord has agreed to remedy the situation. In the case of McCoy ex rel. Jones v. Chicago Housing Authority, the Illinois Appellate Court addresses the question of whether landlords are responsible for injuries that occur when they fail to make promised repairs.
On the afternoon of January 1, 1992, five-year-old Tewanda McCoy was seriously hurt when she fell out of a window in her apartment, which was located in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project managed by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). The child sustained a severe shoulder injury, a dislocated leg and hip, and permanent scarring. She was also expected to develop arthritis in the long term as a result of these injuries.
Tewanda fell through a window whose lock had been broken since her family began occupying the unit several years earlier. However, the specific circumstances surrounding the fall are unknown because the girl was unsupervised at the time of the accident. Her mother, Ms. Jones, was visiting a relative who lived elsewhere in the building. Tewanda and her sister had been napping when their mother left, and a neighbor had agreed to keep an eye on Ms. Jones’s apartment while she was gone. (The neighbor was not inside of the apartment at the time of the fall.)
Upon moving in, Ms. Jones had filled out a report that made note of numerous problems in the apartment; among them was the absence of window screens and functional window locks. A CHA employee assured her that someone would fix these issues. However, Ms. Jones says that a repair crew only visited her apartment once. The crew plastered a hole in the wall during that visit but didn’t address the more serious issues, including the lack of working window locks. From the time she moved in until the time of her daughter’s fall, Ms. Jones visited the building office at least once a month to complain about the problems with her unit. When she complained in December 1991, weeks before her daughter’s fall, a CHA employee told her the repairs wouldn’t be made because workers had been laid off. After Tewanda’s fall, Ms. Jones said that she had “relied on the promises of CHA to fix the window locks.”
A former CHA employee recalled receiving multiple requests from tenants to either repair or replace broken window locks. She also remembered directing those requests to the maintenance department and creating work orders to repair or replace window locks prior to Tewanda’s fall. Although the employee couldn’t remember which specific tenants had made complaints, she did say it was “common knowledge to the staff…that the [building’s] window locks were bad.”
Seeking compensation for her daughter’s injuries, Ms. Jones filed a lawsuit against the CHA alleging negligence (carelessness). Specifically, she argued that the CHA had assumed a duty to protect her daughter from injury by agreeing to repair or replace the broken window locks.
Negligence & Landlord Liability for Injuries
To prove negligence in Illinois, injured parties must demonstrate that the defendant has a duty to protect them from injury. Injured parties must then show that the defendant failed to uphold this duty, directly causing the injury. If they are unable to prove the defendant has a duty to protect, injured parties cannot win a lawsuit.
Local public entities in Illinois (such as the CHA) have a general duty to maintain their property in reasonably safe condition. However, Illinois law also stipulates that landlords—including local public entities—are not responsible for injuries incurred at a property that is leased to a tenant, except in situations when the landlord retains control of the premises. Furthermore, the law does not hold landlords responsible for injuries that occur as a result of a dangerous or defective condition at a rental property that is under the tenant’s control unless an exception to this general rule is met.
There are several specific circumstances under which landlords can be held responsible for injuries that occur at a property controlled by a tenant. For instance, landlords are responsible if they fail to exercise reasonable care while providing services or repairs. Landlords are also liable when they willingly undertake a duty owed to a third party or when an injury occurs because a tenant or third party relies upon the landlord’s service or repair. Illinois courts have held that a landlord is only liable for a voluntary undertaking if the landlord causes the tenant or third party to “forgo other remedies or precautions against such risk.”
The CHA moved for summary judgment in response to Ms. Jones’s negligence lawsuit, arguing there was insufficient evidence for a jury to find that the CHA had a duty to Tewanda, even when the evidence was interpreted in the light most advantageous to her. The trial court agreed and granted the motion.
Ms. Jones then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, claiming the CHA owed a duty to Tewanda because it had voluntarily undertaken to fix the window locks. Additionally, Ms. Jones said she had relied upon the CHA to make the promised repairs.
The appellate court rejected these claims, saying there was no evidence suggesting Ms. Jones should have expected the CHA to repair the window lock. For instance, there was no written agreement or language in the lease holding the CHA responsible for repairs. Furthermore, because Ms. Jones was still attempting to have the problem fixed at the time of her daughter’s fall—years after her initial maintenance request and despite many subsequent requests—the court believed she had no reason to expect the CHA would fix the problem. In other words, the CHA’s repeated failure to fulfill its repair promise demonstrated that it was not dependable. The CHA had also told Ms. Jones it would be unable to execute repairs due to lack of available maintenance personnel. Therefore, the court felt Ms. Jones had no reason to rely on the CHA to repair the window lock.
The appellate court also noted that Ms. Jones offered no evidence of being forced to rely on the CHA’s promise to fix the window lock due to her lack of time, skill, or resources to pursue other solutions. In addition, she was unable to demonstrate that the CHA’s promise had caused her to forgo alternate remedies that may have prevented her daughter from falling out the window, such as repairing the lock herself, asking someone outside the CHA to repair it, taking legal action, or seeking alternate housing arrangements.
For all of these reasons, the appellate court concluded that the CHA had no duty to protect Tewanda and had not acted negligently by failing to address the broken window locks. Therefore, the court affirmed that summary judgment was correct in this case.
A landlord’s promise to repair a rental unit does not automatically result in liability for injuries that occur if the repair isn’t made. A number of circumstances must be taken into consideration when determining liability, including the landlord’s prior history of repairs (or lack thereof), whether the tenant relies on the landlord to make the repairs, whether the landlord’s promise prevents the tenant from seeking alternative solutions to the problem, and whether a written agreement is in place requiring the landlord to make repairs.