Owners of multi-unit properties should be familiar with Section 5431.04(A)(3) of the Ohio Revised Code, which requires a landlord to, “[k]eep all common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition.” At first glance that language seems fairly straightforward. However, what happens when it’s not a tenant who is injured while in a common area, but the guest of a tenant?
This very issue was brought before the Ohio Supreme Court in Mann vs. Northgate Investors, LLC., d.b.a. Northgate Apartments 2014-Ohio-455 (Mann). In that case, Lauren Mann was injured when she left her friend’s second-floor apartment. The hallway and stairwell leading to the exit were dark because all the bulbs had burned out in the light fixtures. Mann was seriously injured when she stumbled off the last step and fell through a glass panel.
Mann sued Northgate, alleging that they had negligently failed to maintain adequate lighting for safe ingress and egress to the property. The trial court dismissed the case on the basis that because R.C. 5321.04 applied only to tenants and not their guests, Northgate only owed Mann an “ordinary duty of care.” The trial court further held that the danger was open and obvious. Mann appealed, and the Tenth District Court of Appeals reversed. The Supreme Court of Ohio accepted the case for review because the decision conflicted with a similar case decided in the Ninth District. The sole issue for consideration was whether R.C. 4321.04(A)(3) applies to a tenant’s guest properly on the premises and injured while in a common area.
In a unanimous decision, the Ohio Supreme Court held that R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) applies not only to tenants, but also to tenant’s guests, so long as they are properly on the premises. The Supreme Court found that a landlord’s negligence in such situations is negligence per se, that is, that a violation conclusively proves that the landlord violated a duty to the tenant. When a landlord is negligent per se, the defense of “open and obvious danger” is inapplicable. However, whether the landlord knew or should have known of the violation is a factor in determining liability. Sikora v. Wenzel 2000-Ohio-406 (syllabus). The Mann case has been remanded back to the trial court, where Mann is seeking over $500,00.00 in damages.
In a nutshell, a landlord owes the same duty of care to a tenant’s guest as he does to a tenant. Because a violation of a duty owed under R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) constitutes negligence per se, a landlord cannot use the defense that the violation is open and obvious. Accordingly, landlords should make sure that the common areas in their properties are kept in good repair.