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  • Writer's pictureW. Cory Reiss

Exploding bathroom exposes tenants' duty to report.

Updated: Apr 5

Slumlords of North Carolina, this one’s for you.

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday that landlords have no duty under state common law or statutes to perform maintenance and repair of leased premises to keep them safe and habitable unless they have reason to know an unsafe condition exists.  

In April of 2017, a residential tenant in Durham turned on his bathroom light and the room exploded, severely burning him all over his body.  It turned out that a gas line under the bathroom floor had corroded from water entering a 12-inch-long, 1.5-inch-wide hole that had developed in the floor during his 12 years as a tenant.  He had never told the landlord about the hole, and the landlord apparently hadn’t gone looking for anything to fix.

Naturally, the tenant sued under common law and statutory theories, including negligence, violation of the N.C. Residential Rental Agreement Act (RRA), and breach of the implied warranty of habitability. 

Long ago, the old “buyer beware” doctrine would have squarely placed the onus on the tenant or buyer of property to discover anything wrong with it before taking possession, whether discovery was a practical possibility or not.  Over time, the General Assembly overlayed old doctrines with statutes like the RRA and other statutes.  The RRA imposed a duty on landlords to comply with all building codes and “do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition,” among other things.  The law seems to place a burden on landlords to continually act in the interests of tenants to keep premises safe even after leasing them, prompting many to perform periodic inspections.

The Court of Appeals sided with the injured tenant in Durham.

But the Supreme Court reversed—holding that a landlord is not responsible for unsafe conditions about which it has no actual notice or no reason to know.  That’s a bit of déjà vu for landlords remembering the halcyon days when caveat emptor reigned.  The Court reached its conclusion under each theory of liability, from common-law negligence to the statutory violations alleged.

The Supreme Court didn’t indicate whether this approach would apply to short-term tenancies under the Vacation Rental Act, and there is cause to believe the reasoning might be different in those cases.  But it’s also likely our lower courts will use this benchmark across the board unless the Supreme Court decides otherwise.

If you’re a tenant, just know this: if a situation develops in your leased property that might conceivably lead to an unsafe condition, report it to the landlord or you may be giving the landlord a free pass if someone gets hurt.

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