Most residential landlords know they have a duty to keep to keep their property safe for its residents. Most landlords do not know that this duty has been written into law, and it requires the property be “fit for its intended use.” MCL 554.139. Even less people know that this duty can be modified and reduced in certain leases.
This issue became important in a recent case decided by the Michigan Court of Appeals, called Battle v. Anderson Villas, LLC. This case involved a slip and fall on a sidewalk due to snow and ice. This was a multi-unit apartment, so the sidewalks and driveways outside were considered “common areas” under the control of the landlord. This obligation to avoid hazards to people using the property is not limited to common areas, and could apply to slippery floors, loose railings, or defective wiring, for example, any of which could hurt someone.
Typically slip and fall cases are easily dismissed since the object or condition contributing to the fall was visible and could have been avoided. This defense to slip and fall cases is called the “open and obvious doctrine,” and this it results in the dismissal of the vast majority of slip and fall cases because a reasonable inspection by the injured person would have revealed the risk before the fall occurred.
However, because this case involved a residential lease, the court said there is a higher duty imposed on landlords by statute. The statute required the landlord to take reasonable measures to ensure that the sidewalks were “fit for their intended use”, i.e, walking.
Therefore, the fact that the snow and ice could be observed (so it was “open and obvious”), and it could have been avoided by the pedestrian, was not enough to dismiss the case, as most slip and fall cases would be dismissed. The case was instead sent back to the trial court by the Appeals Court to decide whether the sidewalk was “fit for its intended purposes.”
Is there a way to possibly avoid this additional risk? Yes. The statute that imposes that additional duty on landlords allows landlords, if their leases are at least one year in length, to modify this obligation. The extent to which this obligation can be modified, and how to do it without violating the Michigan Truth in Renting Act, requires additional considerations. Landlords typically have weak and often illegal leases that open themselves up for liability. Leases should periodically be carefully reviewed by legal counsel to avoid liability and better communicate to a tenant as to what is expected.