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Stairway Accident Injury Claim Dismissed by California Appeals Court Because of Lease Terms

Stairway-Accident-Claims-Attorneys-300x200In California, landlords owe a duty of care to their tenants to keep their premises relatively free from dangerous conditions so that their tenants will be protected from injury. However, some landlords include exculpatory clauses in their leases that purport to immunize them from liability. While these types of clauses are invalid in residential leases, there are certain situations in which they may be valid in commercial leases. In Garcia v. D/AQ Corp., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B305555, the appeals court considered whether an exculpatory clause in a commercial lease prevented an injured plaintiff from seeking to recover damages for his injuries.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Richard Garcia owned an office furniture business. In 2009, he signed a commercial lease agreement to lease premises for his business in Gardena, California. The lease contained a clause that said that the lessor would not be liable for personal injuries that might be suffered by Garcia or others that might result from conditions on the premises. The original property owner sold the building to Feit South Bay LLC in 2012. Feit hired D/AQ Corp. to manage the property. The term of the original commercial lease was extended to Dec. 2014 in 2012. Garcia and D/AQ Corp. signed another agreement to extend the lease to Dec. 2017 in Oct. 2014. Garcia inspected the property two times in 2009 before he signed the original lease and continuously occupied the building from 2009 to 2017.

The building had a staircase that ascended to the second floor, which Garcia used a few times each month during his occupancy. The staircase was never modified during the term of his lease. A door was located at the top of the stairs, and there was a low beam at the top of the doorframe.

In 2012, Doran Tajkef came to inspect the property when its ownership changed. He was employed by D/AQ Corp. He did not climb the stairs but simply peered up during his inspection. Garcia did not tell him about any concerns he might have had about the staircase, the door, or the low beam during the visit.

In April 2016, Garcia ascended the stairs and tried to open the door. However, the door stuck, causing him to push on it more forcefully. When the door suddenly gave and opened, it caused Garcia to lose his balance. He struck his head on the low beam and fell backward down the stairs. Garcia filed a lawsuit against D/AQ Corp. and Feit, alleging causes of action for negligence and premises liability.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Garcia could not prove the duty element because a landlord is not liable for injuries when they are caused by a condition of which the landlord does not have knowledge. They also argued that Garcia’s claim was prevented by the exculpatory clause contained within the lease. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and Garcia filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether the exculpatory clause immunized the property owner against liability for the plaintiff’s injuries?

On appeal, Garcia argued that the exculpatory clause was invalid as it applied to his case. He argued that a clause that purports to exempt a landlord from liability due to negligence is not valid when a tenant suffers an injury because of a dangerous condition. The defendants argued that the trial court’s decision was correct and that they were exempted from liability because of the exculpatory clause in the commercial lease.

Rule: Contracts that purport to exempt a party from liability when someone else is injured because of the party’s negligence violate public policy.

Under Cal. Civ. Code § 1668, exculpatory clauses contained in commercial leases that purport to shield the property owner from liability when someone is injured are against public policy.[2] However, this rule applies only when the injuries result from future intentional acts or negligence. In terms of negligence, the rule against exemptions from future liability only applies when the negligence is active negligence. It does not apply when the negligence is mere nonfeasance.

Analysis

In California, landlords have a general duty of care to conduct reasonable inspections of their properties and to maintain them in a reasonably safe condition before they turn over control of the premises to their tenants.[3] After a tenant has taken possession of the premises, the landlord has a duty of care to prevent injuries caused by an unsafe condition that the landlord knows about or reasonably should know about. However, different rules apply when the properties that are leased are commercial instead of residential.

The court analyzed Garcia’s case under the terms of Cal. Civ. Code § 1668 and the court’s decision in Fritelli Inc. v. 350 N. Canon Drive, LP, 202 Cal.App.4th 35 (2011).[4] In that case, the court found that the prohibition against exculpatory clauses in commercial leases for future intentional acts or negligence resulting in injuries did not apply when the accidents involved mere nonfeasance or passive negligence. The court then considered what happened in Garcia’s case.

The staircase had not been changed or modified during the entire time of Garcia’s lease. The property owner did not complete an adequate inspection. However, the court found that failing to complete an inspection was an example of simple nonfeasance or passive negligence instead of an example of active negligence. Garcia did not allege any intentional or willful actions by the property’s owner or manager that led to his accident and injuries.

Garcia argued that Cal. Civ. Code § 1953 prohibits landlords from trying to modify or eliminate their duty to prevent injuries to their tenants.[5] However, this statute only applies to residential leases and does not apply to commercial leases.

Garcia also argued that the exculpatory clause in the lease did not excuse the landlord from conducting reasonable inspections to discover and remedy the building code violations of the staircase. However, the court found that while Garcia might not have known that the staircase violated the building codes, he did know about the low beam and the dangers it presented.

Conclusion

The court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. The case was dismissed, and the defendants were awarded their costs on the appeal.

Get help from an experienced Los Angeles injury attorney

If you have been injured by a dangerous condition on the property that you are leasing, you may have legal rights to recover damages from your landlord. An experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney at the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers can review the facts of your case and help you to understand your landlord’s duty and whether your claim has merits. Contact us today to request a free consultation by calling us at 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/b305555.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-11-27-personal-injury-c01edefc09&utm_content=text-case-title-4

[2] https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=CIV&division=3.&title=4.&part=2.&chapter=&article=

[3] https://www.victimslawyer.com/slumlord-tenant-injury-claims-in-california.html

[4] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=1028461404954268232&q=Frittelli,+Inc.+v.+350+North+Canon+Drive,+LP&hl=en&as_sdt=6,26&as_vis=1

[5] https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=CIV&division=3.&title=5.&part=4.&chapter=2.&article=

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