Property owners are liable for injuries caused by their failure to correct or repair dangerous conditions. But what if the owner has rented or leased the property to someone else? Under Georgia law, an owner who has “fully parted with possession” (i.e., a landlord) is not liable for injuries sustained by third parties on the premises.
There are two exceptions to this rule. First, the landlord is liable if the injury was the result of “defective construction.” Additionally, the landlord is responsible for his or her own “failure to keep the premises in repair.”
Aldredge v. Byrd, et al.
Regarding the second exception, a landlord is only liable if he or she knew–or should have known–that the premises required repair. The mere fact that a dangerous condition was exposed by an accident is not enough to establish a landlord’s liability. A recent Georgia Court of Appeals case illustrates how this principle works in practice.
This case involves a residential deck collapse. The defendant was a landlord who rented a house to a couple in 2010. The defendant purchased the house about 30 years ago. Shortly after purchasing the property, the defendant hired an independent contractor to demolish and replace the existing outside deck.
In 2011, about a year into their lease, the tenants hosted a party on the deck for their daughter and some of her friends. At some point, according to court records, the deck “broke away from the house, and the edge of the deck nearest to the house collapsed to the ground.”
Five party guests who were injured when the deck collapsed sued the landlord for negligence. They argued the landlord was not immune from liability since his “failure to keep the premises in repair” caused the accident. The trial judge denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, but the Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed the victims’ lawsuit.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant that there was “no evidence that he had actual or constructive knowledge that the premises were in need of repair.” The Court explained that in Georgia, a landlord “is not an insurer of its tenants’ safety” or the safety of their guests, and it is effectively up to the tenants to notify the landlord of a problem.
The Court further noted the deck itself complied with local building codes. A building inspector from the local police department actually investigated the deck following the collapse. He testified that while the collapse was due to a rotted rim joist, the wooden structure connecting the deck to the house, there was no way this “would have been visible or observable to anyone” prior to the actual collapse.
It should also be noted the landlord cannot be held liable for any construction defects in the deck itself. As noted above, the landlord hired an independent contractor to build the deck. The Court of Appeals said under Georgia law, a landlord is not liable for faulty construction performed by an independent contractor that he does not personally direct or supervise.