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Posted by Tristan R. Pettit, Esq. in Caselaw, Tenant Damage / Comments

The court of appeals recently released its decision in the case of Maryland Arms Limited Partnership v. Connell. This decision has been reccomended for publication.  The issue in this lawsuit was whether the landlord or the tenant should be liable for damage to an apartment unit when the damage was not caused by the negligence of either the landlord or tenant.  The Court of Appeals held that it is the Landlord that should be held liable in such a situation.  As such the case will now stand for the proposition that a tenant cannot be held liable for his/her actions that damage the property unless the damage is caused by the tenant's negligence

The facts were as follows and were not disputed by either the tenant or the landlord:

-  A fire occurred in the tenant's apartment and caused $8,000 worth of damages while the tenant was asleep.

-  The fire started from a hair dryer owned by the tenant which was plugged into the elctrical outlet.

-  The tenant did not know that the hair dryer was deffective when it was left plugged into the electrical outlet.

- The tenant and the landlord both agreed that the tenant was not negligent in causing the fire as she had no indication that anything was wrong with the hair dryer when she left it plugged into the outlet.

The rental agreement that was signed by both the tenant and landlord included the following language:

"Lessee shall be responsible for all intentional and negligent acts or breaches of thie Lease by the Lessee, Lessee's occupants, guests, or invitiees.  Lessee shall be liable for all damage to the premises and appliances and equipment belonging thereto, in any way caused by the acts of Lesee, Lessee's occupants, guests and invitiees."

As a result of the above language the trial court (Judge Michael Brennan of Milwaukee County) granted judgment for the landlord and against the tenant.

A majority of the Court of Appeals (the court was divided as one judge dissented) reversed the trial court's ruling and remanded the case back to the trial court directling it to enter judgement against the landlord.

In essence the Court of Appeals voided the lease language that is underlined  above becasue it felt that the lease provision was contrary to the Wisconsin Statutes governing Landlord Tenant Law - specifically sec. 704.07, Wis. Stats.

Sec. 704.07 states that a landlord is required to make repairs to the property unless the repairs were made necessary by the negligence of the tenant.  Sec. 704.07 also states that a tenant must repair damage if it is the result of the tenant's negligence.

The Court of Appeals did admit that sec. 704.07 does not specifically address the issue of who should be responsible in a situation where the damage was not caused by the negligence of either the landlord or the tenant.   The logical outcome should then be to look to the rental agreement and determine what the parties agreed to in such a situation.  If that was done then the tenant would be liable for the cost of the fire damage repair.

Instead the Court of Appeals held that the only logical conclusion that one should come to after reading the statute is that it is the landlord's responsibility to pay for the damage because the damage was not caused by the tenant's negligence.

This is just another example of the courts going out of their way to protect the tenant at all expenses.  It seems as if the Court decided the outcome that they wanted and then did whatever was possible to piece together an argument to support that outcome rather then following and applying the law as written and then arriving at the outcome.  I'm assuming the landlord had insurance and the Court felt that as such the landlord would be better able to handle the repair costs.

Landlords already have statutes and administrative code regulations that tell them what they can and cannot include in their rental agreements.  Now we have a case that essentially says that even if a statute or regulation doesn't prevent you from including certain language  in your rental agreement, if we (the Court of Appeals) don't like the provision that was included in then we will find a way to make it void and unenforceable.

The only voice of reason appears to be in the dissent which is authored by  Judge Ralph Adam Fine  -- who by the way was once a member of my law firm Petrie & Stocking S.C. (we only hire the smartest and brightest  ;  )  -- who concluded that while the landlord would have a duty to repair the fire damage there is nothing in the statute that requires the landlord to be responsible for the cost of the repairs in the end especially when the parties agrees differently in the rental agreement.

It is yet unknown if the landlord will appeal this decision to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin or even if it did whether or not the "supremes" whould agree to hear the case.  So it appears as if for now at least we have precedent in this case that is not very favorable to landlords.

What are your thoughts on this decision?

Tristan is a shareholder with the law firm of Petrie+Pettit and focuses his practice in the area of landlord-tenant law representing landlords and property management companies throughout Wisconsin.

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