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Is a Landlord Responsible for a Tenant’s Guest Falling into a Catch Basin?

Landlord and tenant relationships are fraught with complications and potential for disputes. In extreme cases, tenants, or their guests, can even suffer serious injuries because of landlord neglect. In the case of Nguyen v. Lam the Illinois Appellate court addresses whether a landlord is responsible for a tenant’s guest falling into a catch basin.

The Facts

In the Nguyen case, the landlord, Mr. Lam, leased a two-flat on Chicago’s Winnemac Avenue to the parents of Ms. Nguyen’s boyfriend. The landlord allowed the tenants to use the building’s backyard where there was a catch basin covered with a metal lid. Maintenance of the catch basin lid became the key issue in the legal dispute between the parties.

Mr. Lam had owned the building for over 20 years, and lived there until 2010. He was aware of the catch basin, had walked on it, and had even been told by the building’s previous owner that he should look into the basin to make sure it did not get clogged. Mr. Lam had the basin cleaned in 1992, but he did not otherwise inspect or maintain the lid. Mr. Lam stated he did, however, regularly inspect and maintain the backyard.

In August of 2014, Ms. Nguyen and her boyfriend were carrying groceries to his parent’s apartment when she stepped on the metal lid. As she stepped on the lid, it flipped vertically and Ms. Nguyen fell, straddling the vertical metal cover. As a result of the fall, Ms. Nguyen suffered a serious injury to her groin.

After the injury occurred, Mr. Lam replaced the lid, stood on it, and stated that it was not broken and that Ms. Nguyen had not fallen in.

Photos of the catch basin and lid were taken after the incident. The photos showed visible cracks in the cement surrounding the catch basin lid, and the metal lid itself was rusted and deteriorated. Photos were also taken with the lid tipped up. These photos showed significant corrosion of the concrete lip and additional rust on the edge of the lid.

Ms. Nguyen filed a lawsuit against the owner of the apartment building alleging negligence (carelessness). Specifically, she alleged that Mr. Lam failed to exercise reasonable care in the ownership, maintenance and inspection of his property and that those failures resulted in her injury.

The Law of Catch Basin Liability

In Illinois, property owners are responsible for an injury to a person who is legally present on the property when owners do not exercise reasonable care in maintaining the property in safe condition. Owners must use care to discover defects or dangerous conditions on the property and either fix the defects or provide a warning so others can avoid the danger. Owners are responsible if they know of the defective condition.  They are also responsible if they should have known of the condition had they been conducting reasonable inspections. A jury can decide that a property owner should have known of a defective condition if it is shown that the defect existed for a substantial period of time.

The Decision

Despite the evidence Ms. Nguyen provided, Mr. Lam asked the trial court to grant him summary judgment (a court order that dismisses a claim based on the allegation that there is not enough evidence for the other party to win). Mr. Lam argued that all the evidence produced by Ms. Nguyen, even if believed by a jury, was insufficient for a jury to find in her favor.

The trial judge agreed with Mr. Lam and dismissed the case, holding that no reasonable jury could find in Ms. Nguyen’s favor given the evidence presented. The trial judge also found that since Ms. Nguyen did not present an expert, there was no competent evidence of the amount of time the defect existed.

Ms. Nguyen appealed the trial court’s decision to the Illinois Appellate court. Ms. Nguyen argued that the trial court made a mistake by holding that there was no competent evidence as to the length of time the catch basin lid had been defective.

In reviewing the case, the appellate court found that the amount of time required to corrode the lid and surrounding cement falls within the jurors’ common knowledge, therefore no expert testimony is required to establish this fact. Accordingly, the appellate court ruled that sufficient evidence exists for a jury to find that the defect in the catch basin had existed long enough to impute constructive knowledge (Mr. Lam should have known) and that the case should proceed to trial so the jury can make this determination.

Conclusion

Property owners are responsible for injuries suffered on their property when a person who is legally on the land falls into a catch basin in situations where the owner either knew of the defective catch basin or should have known of it. Knowledge of the defect can be imputed to the owner if the condition of the basin or lid is such that a reasonable person would believe the defect has been present for a long time. Expert testimony is not required to establish the time required for extensive corrosion but should still be used if possible.

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