Owning and renting a house can be a tricky and dangerous proposition. Many tenants know laws better than you, the landlord, and are ready to pounce when presented with an opportunity to sue for personal injury. Understanding and preparing for this reality is essential if you want to protect yourself from liability.
Of course, the stereotypical “slip and fall” personal injury suit is an omnipresent threat. As a landlord, you should always ensure snow and ice and any other dangerous materials are removed from the premises as quickly as possible. The good news is that your hazard insurance should cover the risk of most injuries. Requiring the tenant to carry renters insurance is also a great way to reduce liability and share risk.
One of the biggest ways Washington DC landlords subject themselves to liability is through mold and lead exposure. Water penetration through windows, roofs, doors, foundations and walls can affect air quality, and cause mold spores to propagate. Left untreated and in the right conditions, mold can grow quickly and remain undetected. Kitchens and baths, utility closets, and basements are favorite places for mold. Tenants may not realize they are exposed, and may experience symptoms only well after it is too late to avoid sickness. Individuals may manifest a variety of health related problems, from coughing, dizziness, headaches, nausea and asthma, to sometimes much more serious conditions. Physicians diagnose extreme cases as “Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome”, or CIRS.
Likewise, peeling or chipping paint used prior to 1978 that was never properly encapsulated will expose tenants to lead. Significant federal and District regulations govern this area, including the requirement to conduct an inspection prior to each new tenancy, and abate any known risks.
Washington DC also has a very progressive set of housing code laws. DCRA, the regulatory agency responsible for conducting housing code inspections, routinely cites landlords for what seem like extremely minor repair needs. Tenants need only call for an inspection, and an inspector will visit the premises within a few weeks. With the average age of the housing stock, it is rare that an inspector does not cite at least several violations. Tenants may then use this as a basis for withholding rent, suing in housing conditions court, or bringing their own personal injury suit.
As with most of life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Ensuring your tenant is happy and resolving issues as they arise are great ways of reducing your liability. When slip and fall incidents, mold, lead, or housing code violations do come up, stay ahead of the game by addressing the problem with competent contractors as quickly as possible. If you are a tenant experiencing some or all of these concerns, be sure to consult an attorney to discuss your options.
How to handle probate during a personal injury case in Washington, DC
Probate is the orderly distribution of assets of a someone who has passed away. The “decedent” as they are called, may have a house, car, bank accounts or other things of value that are owned solely in their name. In order to transfer ownership without a free-for-all, legislatures and courts have created rules that govern procedures for changing title to the decedent’s heirs. It can be a nuanced and lengthy process, particularly for the uninitiated.
As if this were not complicated enough, let’s say the decedent was involved in a personal injury case, or some other lawsuit where they stood to gain through a judgment or settlement award. How do we handle the case once the decedent/plaintiff suddenly passes away? The good news is that death of the decedent does not terminate his claims.
In order to preserve the rights of the decedent/plaintiff, we first must appoint a personal representative of his estate. That individual will have the full authority to act on the decedent’s behalf. It is almost like he is stepping into the shoes of the decedent. Once a court appoints the personal representative, that individual may continue pressing the same claims that were previously raised, or bring additional claims based on newly discovered information.
For example, some people may have a wrongful death suit based on how an individual passed away. The personal representative would gather information, consult with an attorney, and build a case in order to bring compensation for wrongful behavior by doctors, tortfeasors or others who acted inappropriately. Only the personal representative may act for the estate — no other heir or attorney.
Once a settlement or judgment is reached, money or other consideration enters the estate and can be distributed to heirs or legatees. How the money is distributed is based on whether there is a will, and if so what it says, or the rules of intestacy (a set of default principles that approximate what the legislature believes people who don’t have a will would want to happen if they had executed a testamentary document). Most times, these funds will go to the residuary beneficiaries, i.e., people who get whatever is left once everything else is distributed.
Given the complexity of both litigation, personal injury law and probate law, it is wise to consult a competent landlord tenant attorney who specializes in these areas. Most attorneys provide a free consultation before deciding to take your case, which can provide invaluable insight into how you should best proceed.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from Gormley Law Office for their insight into landlord and tenant laws.