In Chicago many tenants suffer injury due to landlord negligence. Though this is a complex area of law that requires professional guidance, this publication will provide a general understanding of a tenant’s right sue for personal injury on a rental property. To talk to a professional, click here to request a consultation.
In many locales, landlord and tenant law is based on old customs and is lightly regulated. This results in situations where landlords can neglect their properties and tenants with few (if any) consequences. Though most landlord negligence results in annoyance and less than ideal living conditions, some neglect causes severe injuries such as broken bones and concussions. Landlord negligence may even result in death.
In this article, we will begin by discussing the general rules under Illinois law for making a personal injury claim against a landlord in situations involving dangerous and defective property conditions. Then, we will address landlord responsibility for injury claims in cases when a landlord acts carelessly. Finally, we will address landlord liability for tenant injury under the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (RLTO).
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When Can You Sue Your Landlord for Injury in Illinois?
Courts hold that tenants can make a personal injury claim against a landlord in three different situations:
- Under certain circumstances when a defective and dangerous condition exists;
- When the landlord acts carelessly and the careless act causes injury; and
- When a law, such as the RLTO, imposes a specific responsibility on the landlord and gives a tenant the right to sue if the landlord fails to comply with the responsibility.
This article will address all three situations sequentially, but before we get to that, we need to understand how various laws in the United States interact.
Understanding state law, local ordinances, and common law
United States laws contain numerous hierarchical levels. That is, federal law (the Constitution and U.S. statutes) is generally supreme. States can make laws that are consistent with federal law, and they can also legislate in areas that are not covered by federal law. In most instances, however, states cannot make laws that contradict federal law.
Additionally, within each state, there are both county codes and local ordinances. In Illinois, county codes tend to be less voluminous and usually cover limited subject matter. Local ordinances are often more pervasive—especially in the case of large cities like Chicago. Like the relationship between state and federal law, state law typically reigns supreme over county codes and local ordinances. Counties and municipalities can make laws that expand on state statutes, but conflicting laws are resolved in favor of the state (except to the extent that the state has permitted counties and cities to override state law).
Local ordinances can be very important. Relevant to this article, the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance provides a complex scheme of regulations that govern the relationship between landlords and tenants in Chicago.
Finally, there is the concept of judge-made law, also called “common law.” The principle of common law is based on British law and arose from legal concepts that were brought to the United States by settlers. In situations where there is no clear statute, code, or ordinance to govern a dispute, judges rely on common law found in past legal decisions. Common law is very important in the context of landlord liability for personal injury to a tenant because there is no state statute that delineates a tenant’s rights and remedies when injured. In fact, the majority of personal injury law in Illinois is common law.
The General Rule for a “Defective and Dangerous Conditions” Personal Injury Claim Against Your Landlord – Illinois Law
As noted in the preceding paragraph, no Illinois statute governs personal injury claims against a landlord. Thus, lawsuits against a landlord for personal injury are based entirely on common law. Because common law is old, some assumptions made in cases may seem outrageous or unrealistic to a modern tenant. That said, absent the state enacting a statute, we must work with the law as it is. The general rule regarding landlord liability for injury is based on negligence. For a landlord to be liable for negligence, the following conditions must be met:
- The landlord must have a duty of care to the injured party (in other words, the landlord must have a legal responsibility to act reasonably for the protection of others);
- The landlord must have breached that duty; and
- The breach of the duty must have caused, in a reasonably foreseeable manner, the harm to the injured party.
These are the standard elements of a negligence claim for personal injury. However, things can take a turn when it comes to analyzing whether the landlord has a duty (legal obligation) to protect tenants and/or their guests. In a typical case (such as a car accident), duty is fairly straightforward—drivers are required to take reasonable care when driving a car to avoid injuring other people. If they fail to do so, they are responsible for injuries that occur as a result. In contrast, courts have greatly truncated what one would assume is a landlord’s duty of care as follows:
A lessor who relinquishes control of property to a lessee owes no duty to a tenant or third party that is injured by a defective or dangerous condition on the premises.
Further, the courts have gone to great lengths to hold that landlords relinquish complete control of the property, even when modern leases reserve many rights to the landlord.
Thus, the general rule is that a landlord has no legal obligation to protect tenants from injuries caused by defective or dangerous conditions on the leased premises.
Though this is harsh, there are six exceptions to the rule that landlords have no liability for personal injury caused by defective conditions. These exceptions greatly expand landlord liability. A landlord may be responsible for personal injury in the leased premises when:
- A latent defect exists at the time of leasing that the landlord knew about or should have known about;
- The landlord fraudulently conceals a dangerous condition;
- The defect causing the harm amounts to a nuisance;
- The landlord has contracted in the lease to keep the rental property in good repair;
- The landlord violates a statutory requirement that is designed to protect tenants, guests, or people that otherwise occupy property; and
- The landlord voluntarily promises to render service.
Understanding Exceptions to the General Rule Where a Landlord Has No Duty to Maintain
Landlords are responsible for injury where they should have known about a latent defect that exists at the time of leasing
A latent defect is a hidden problem with the rental unit. If a landlord knew about a hidden defect—or should have known about it had the landlord used reasonable care—the tenant can make a personal injury claim against the landlord for injuries caused by this defect.
For example, a landlord has a roof inspected when purchasing a rental property. The inspector tells the landlord the rafters are rotting and the roof is not sound. Despite this, the landlord buys the property, doesn’t fix the roof, and rents it to a tenant. Then winter snow causes the roof to collapse, injuring the tenant. In this case, the tenant could successfully sue the landlord because the landlord knew about the hidden defect (rotten rafters) and the defect caused the tenant’s injury.
Landlords are responsible for personal injury where they fraudulently conceal a dangerous condition
Similar to the latent defect exception, the fraudulent concealment exception makes landlords liable for injuries when they hide or cover up a dangerous condition.
An example of fraudulent concealment would be a situation where a landlord is aware of rotting floorboards. Instead of replacing them, the landlord just paints over the floorboards to make them look sound. If a tenant were to fall through the floor and become injured, the tenant can assert a personal injury claim against the landlord.
Landlords are responsible for an injury where the defect causing harm amounts to a nuisance
Legally speaking, nuisance is a high standard. Nuisance is a substantial invasion of another’s interest in the use and enjoyment of his or her land. If there is a defective condition on the premises that amounts to a nuisance, the landlord can be successfully sued for an injury caused by that condition.
For example, a landlord might keep a furnace in poor repair so it leaks gas. The leaking gas is so pervasive that it amounts to a nuisance. When the gas ignites and the resulting explosion injures tenants or third parties, the landlord is responsible for the injuries.
Landlords are liable for injuries if a provision in the lease mandates them to keep the premises in good repair
To a modern tenant, it may seem as if this exemption should impose liability on landlords in most situations—but this is not so. Courts have gone to great lengths to find that general lease provisions do not give a landlord control of the property and do not impose a duty to keep the premises in good repair. Landlords can only be held responsible for injuries if the lease provision regarding property maintenance is very specific. Since most leases are drafted by landlords (or their attorneys), they are usually not specific enough to impose a duty to maintain.
That said, some leases do impose certain duties on a landlord. A common example is a lease saying the landlord will keep the sidewalks shoveled. If landlords fail to perform their duty of shoveling the sidewalks and it results in an injury, the tenant can assert a personal injury claim against the landlord.
Landlords are liable for personal injury if they violate a statutory requirement designed to protect the tenants, guests or occupiers of property
This exception is what makes landlords liable for most injuries that occur on rented premises—especially in a highly regulated municipality like Chicago. Municipalities have many safety laws related to building maintenance. These can be building codes or even special tenants’ rights laws like the Chicago RLTO. If a landlord fails to maintain a building in accordance with the law and a tenant is injured, the tenant has a valid personal injury claim against the landlord.
For instance, the RLTO mandates that landlords maintain porches and decks in sound condition (5-12-070, 5-12-110). The city clearly intended this ordinance to be for the safety of tenants and their guests as there have been many catastrophic deck collapses in Chicago. If a deck collapses due to the landlord’s failure to maintain, this is a violation of the ordinance and the landlord is legally responsible for the injuries.
Landlords are liable if they voluntarily promise to render a service
When landlords promise to do something and tenants reasonably rely on that promise, landlords are liable for personal injuries caused by their failure to do what they promised to do. This is especially true when tenants forego other possible solutions for making the premises safe because of their landlords’ promises to make repairs.
For example, a tenant might notice the handrail in her unit is loose. The tenant reports the loose handrail to the landlord and he says he will fix it the following day. However, the landlord doesn’t fix it. As the week goes on, the landlord continues stating that he will get to it. When the tenant’s guest is injured because the railing collapses while it is in use, the landlord is responsible because he voluntarily undertook the duty to repair the railing.
Landlords Are Responsible for Personal Injuries When They Take Action and Act Carelessly—General Negligence
The general rule and exceptions described above apply in situations where a tenant is injured due to a dangerous and defective condition on the rental premises. Lawyers call these “premises liability claims.” Such claims exist when the landlord fails to maintain the property in reasonably safe condition.
The analysis is different when one person (whether a landowner or not) does something that injures another person. In these situations, the standard duty applies. In other words, when people act, they are obligated to take reasonable care to protect others.
Landlords are liable for injuries if they act carelessly and their careless acts cause a foreseeable harm to other people (including tenants).
An example of this type of negligence claim would be a situation where a landlord mounts a range hood herself but only inserts the mounting bolts halfway. When the range hood’s vibrations cause the bolts to fall out and the range hood to collapse, injuring the tenant, the landlord is responsible for the injury since inserting the bolts halfway is not reasonable and the harm was foreseeable. In other words, the landlord has breached her duty of care.
Contrast this with a case where the landlord buys an apartment with the range hood already installed. The range hood later falls on a tenant because the bolts worked their way out. In this situation, the current landlord did not make create the dangerous condition herself. Therefore, the tenant has to make a “failure to maintain” claim. (To be successful, this type of claim would also require one of the above exceptions to the general rule that landlords are not liable for injuries caused by dangerous or defective conditions.)
Landlord Liability for Personal Injuries Under the Chicago RLTO
The Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance applies to almost all residential properties located within the Chicago city limits. There are several exceptions to its application, but the only common one is that the RLTO does not apply to units in owner-occupied buildings of six units or less. This means that Chicago tenants cannot rely on the RLTO if their units are located in a building that contains six units or less and the owner of their unit also lives in the building.
The RLTO comes into play in injury cases under two theories.
As discussed above, the RLTO is useful in establishing an exception to the general Illinois rule that landlords do not have a duty to maintain their property free of defective and dangerous conditions. The RLTO imposes many duties to maintain on a landlord, and those duties are clearly imposed to ensure tenant safety. A non-exhaustive list of a landlord’s duty to maintain is found by referencing section 5-12-110 of the RLTO.
In addition to being a prime example of an exception for defective and dangerous conditions claims, the RLTO contains a private right of action. This means tenants can sue their landlord for personal injuries under the RLTO itself. This is because the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance imposes many duties on a landlord—including a duty to maintain the premises under sections 5-12-070 and 5-12-110 of the Chicago Municipal Code. Further, under section 5-12-110(e):
If there is material noncompliance by the landlord with the rental agreement or with Section 5-12-070 [incorporating 5-12-110], the tenant may obtain injunctive relief, and/or recover damages by claim or defense. This subsection does not preclude the tenant from obtaining other relief to which he may be entitled under this chapter.
The term “damages” is a broad concept when used in the legal context and includes compensation for harm suffered in the nature of personal injuries, including medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, disfigurement, loss of normal life, and so on. Damages could even include claims under the Wrongful Death Act if applicable.
Not only does the RLTO give tenants a private right of action, but it also provides that if the tenant’s lawsuit is successful, he or she will be entitled to an award of reasonable attorney’s fees under section 5-12-180 of the Chicago Municipal Code.
Thus, a Chicago tenant can sue a landlord for personal injuries under both common law and the RLTO. An RLTO claim allows tenants to recover for their injuries as well as receiving an award of reasonable attorney fees.
Though the general Illinois rule holding landlords responsible for injuries due to defective and dangerous conditions is restrictive, the exceptions allow a tenant to sue in many cases where injuries are caused by a failure to maintain. This is especially true given the robust building codes and other regulations designed to protect tenants and other occupants.
Moreover, regardless of the rule limiting landlord liability for dangerous conditions, landlords are liable for their own negligent acts when those acts injure tenants.
Finally, the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance offers an independent basis for a lawsuit when a tenant suffers a personal injury due to a landlord’s failure to maintain a property in accordance with the RLTO.
If you would like to speak to an attorney about your injury claim, click here. Consultations are free and there is no fee unless you win.
Further Reading to Learn More about Suing a Landlord for Personal Injury in Chicago
For more detail on specific cases of landlord liability for personal injuries, click the links below.
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