This article is not intended as legal advice for any specific issue that might arise, since every situation is different. Always consult a knowledgeable landlord attorney with your specific legal issues.
By Mark Busch, Attorney
A Multnomah County jury just awarded an injured tenant over $20 million for injuries the tenant suffered on an apartment walkway that failed. The tenant partially fell through a hole in a concrete walkway that crumbled beneath his footstep. He ended up with injuries to his right leg and right knee that required surgery.
The tenant sued two related landlord companies that owned and managed the large apartment complex in southeast Portland. The tenant’s attorneys alleged negligence and failure to maintain common areas for “normal and reasonably foreseeable uses” as required by Oregon law. The jury awarded damages in the sum of $45,597.09 in medical expenses, $250,000 in “pain and suffering” damages, and $20,000,000 in punitive damages. To award punitive damages, the jury was required to find that the landlord acted with a reckless, conscious, and outrageous indifference to a highly unreasonable risk of harm to others.
In this particular case, the landlord chose to admit responsibility for the condition of the walkway since there were records showing that the landlord knew about the problem and evidence that a previous patchwork repair was insufficient. The landlord’s attorneys argued that even though their client admitted fault, the amount of damages sought was excessive. The jury obviously disagreed in its verdict. An appeal has not yet been filed, but is likely given the amount of the award.
The lesson for landlords is obvious: Make repairs as soon as possible when habitability issues arise and do the repairs properly. This applies to all landlord-operated properties, including apartment complexes, manufactured housing parks, RV parks, duplexes, and single family homes. For the most part, landlords generally lose habitability cases when they delay making repairs or ignore the problem altogether.
A corollary is to make sure that your insurance coverage is up to date. Landlords should have adequate coverage on their rental properties and should consider umbrella coverage to protect against large verdicts. While standard insurance policies rarely cover punitive damages, you eliminate the risk of punitive damages by thoroughly addressing repair issues as soon as they are reported.