The owner or manager of an apartment building has a duty to use reasonable care to maintain a property in safe condition or to warn of any dangers. (Courtesy photo)

The owner or manager of an apartment building has a duty to use reasonable care to maintain a property in safe condition or to warn of any dangers. (Courtesy photo)

Landlords liable for property maintenance

This week’s question comes from Sophie in South San Francisco, who writes:

Q: “I recently moved into an apartment and was taking the trash out at night. I didn’t realize, nor see because the overhead light was out, that there was a curb outside the rear door leading to the dumpster that had been built by the owner to keep the dumpster from rolling. I tripped, fell and broke my ankle. Is my landlord at fault?”

A: Sophie, I am sorry to learn of your injury. You raise a very good question, and, like many questions in the legal world, the answer is “it depends.” There are many factors to consider in deciding whether you have a viable claim.

In general, the owner, or property management company, of an apartment building has a duty to use reasonable care to maintain that property in safe condition, or, alternatively, to warn of any dangers. In other words, they have to use reasonable care to discover any unsafe conditions and to repair, replace or give adequate warning of that unsafe condition. If they fail to do that and it causes injury, a person may bring a “premises liability” lawsuit.

In your case, there are two potential issues. First, with the overhead light being out, the garbage area at night was potentially a dangerous condition. Also, the curb, depending on how it is configured, could be a dangerous condition.

As it relates to the curb, generally, its height and depth would have to comply with the applicable building codes including Americans with Disabilities Act access requirements. Also, the curb’s visibility could be an issue (i.e., color, reflective coating, etc.). Likewise, if it was uneven or had been broken or otherwise damaged, the curb itself may be considered a dangerous condition.

The lighting question is a little more interesting from a legal perspective. If the lack of illumination made it particularly difficult to see the curb or to otherwise negotiate that step, then that could be a dangerous condition. If the light went out just that night, it is unlikely that the landlord would be held liable because there was insufficient time for him or her to learn/know about it and fix it. If the landlord was aware that the lights were out and had time to repair them, but failed to do so, and it caused your fall, they may indeed be held responsible for many of the damages you suffered.

Even if the landlord did not have “actual knowledge” the lights were out, they may still be held liable. The property owner has an affirmative duty to inspect or take other means to learn of the condition of the property. Because of that, it would be important to find out how long those lights had been out.

If the landlord failed to inspect or otherwise check the property — including, as in your case, the lighting — and if they would have through reasonable diligence discovered the dangerous condition, the owner may be at fault.

Ask your landlord about insurance under her insurance policy for medical payments. Many insurance policies covering property have a no-fault provision providing an individual injured on the property to receive a sum of money to help pay for medical payments.

You should take photographs of the condition, try and establish how long the light had been out and whether anyone had reported it to the owner or manager. Given the complexity of the situation, consider contacting a trial attorney experienced in premises liability cases to advise you further on your legal rights and remedies.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to

Chris DolanDolan Law FirmlandlordlawlegalliabilitySan Francisco

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