Bossier City House Fire Tragedy Prompts Court’s Review of Landlord’s Duty to Tenants

Louisiana law reflects the state legislature’s interest in protecting the health and safety of residents of rental property. For instance, landlords are required to warrant that a house is “suitable for the purpose for which it was leased” and that it is “free of vices or defects that prevent its use for that purpose.” La. C.C. art. 2696. The warranty extends even to problems that are not personally known to the landlord, though there is an obligation on the part of tenants to report any unsafe conditions. La. C.C. art. 2697. Some limited waivers of this warranty are permitted, but only by “clear and unambiguous language that is brought to the
attention of the lessee.” La. C.C. art. 2699. So strong is the state’s intent to protect tenants that the law imposes strict liability on a landlord for damages that arise from defects to the property. To prevail against a landlord, the tenant must only prove that the landlord had control over the thing that caused injury; the thing that caused injury suffered from a condition that created an “unreasonable risk of harm”; and that the condition caused the tenant’s injury. In fact, the landlord’s liability is based entirely on his status as the landlord, not his personal fault. Thus, a landlord’s “lack of knowledge regarding a [particular] defect is inconsequential.”

A case that recently came before the Second Circuit Court of Appeal demonstrates the operation of this statutory warranty. In 2000, Antonio Wells, Sr. signed a lease to rent a house on Julia Avenue in Bossier City from William Norris. Wells’s family, who lived with him in the house, included his wife, Amanda, and three children: Amber, Antinio Jr., and Arquisia. When the family moved in, several electrical outlets were not working. Wells and his wife got into the habit of using extension cords to power lights and other appliances in the home that were not located near working outlets. Discovered later was the fact that many of the 20-amp fuses in the home’s fuse panel had been replaced with 30-amp fuses to prevent overloads; this caused excessive heat to build up in the circuits. Around lunch time on July 1, 2001, the house caught fire when an air conditioner overloaded a circuit with an altered fuse and ignited. The Bossier City Fire Department responded and extinguished the fire, but, tragically, not before Arquisia was killed and both Amber Antonio Jr. were severely injured. Wells filed suit against the landlord, Norris, in June of 2002. Wells alleged that Norris was strictly liable for the damages sustained by him and his family in the fire. A trial was held in March, 2010 in which the trial judge, without oral or written reasoning, ruled in favor of Wells and awarded $207,572.79 in damages. Norris appealed.

Norris’s primary argument on appeal was that the trial judge misapplied the Louisiana code related to landlord liability. He pointed to the provision in Wells’s lease that required him to “keep and maintain the House and appurtenances in good and sanitary condition and repair during the term of this Lease.” Norris argued that this language was “clear and unequivocal” and therefore served as a waiver of strict liability on his part under La. C.C. art. 2699. The court disagreed. In its view, Wells’s agreement to “maintain the house in good repair” did not “equate to his assumption of responsibility for the condition” of the entire premises. In addition, the court found that “no language existed anywhere [in the lease] amounting to a clear and unambiguous waiver of the warranty against vices and defects.” Accordingly, the court upheld the trial judge’s award of damages to the Wells family.

A number of the cases we have examined on this blog have turned on the language of a controlling document, such as an insurance policy. Although the court’s reading of the lease in the Wells case turned out favorably for the Wells family, it would not be difficult to imagine another, similar case where a landlord had inserted a provision that was sufficiently “clear and unequivocal” to waive his liability for life-endangering defects in the property.

If you have been injured due to unsafe conditions on the home or apartment you rent, contact the Berniard Law Firm today at 1-866-574-8005. Speak with a lawyer who can help you understand your rights and obtain the recovery you deserve.