CAN A LANDLORD BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING OF TENANTS?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Miller v. Wichita Gas Co., 139 Kan. 729, 33 P.2d 130 (1934).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a landlord be responsible for the carbon monoxide poisoning of tenants?
This case dealt with the carbon monoxide poisoning of several tenants in an apartment building. Id. at 131. Both the gas company and the landlord of the building were sued for the injuries resulting from this poisoning. Id. The landlord argued that he could not be held liable because it was the company that failed to fix the furnace. Id. However, the court ultimately held that the landlord was also liable for failing to respond to numerous tenant complaints that the gas company had failed to fix the furnace properly. Id. at 131-32.
Plaintiffs in this case were residents of an apartment building who all suffered injuries from inhaling carbon monoxide gas. Id. at 131. Defendants were both the gas company that installed and maintained the gas lines and furnace, as well as the landlord that ran the property. Id. One tenant complained to the landlord that the furnace was malfunctioning. Id. The landlord called the gas company, who sent an employee to check the furnace and gas lines. Id. The employee did not do a thorough inspection, resulting in him missing a leak in the furnace and faulty connections between the pipes and furnace. Id. A few days later, another tenant complained to the landlord that the furnace still appeared to be broken and the building smelled like gas. Id. The landlord told the tenant the gas company had just been out and the landlord had no intention of calling them again. Id. More tenants complained to landlord, but he continued to ignore the complaints. Id. A few nights later, three tenants reported to the local hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning. Id. These tenants filed suit against both the landlord and gas company. Id.
There was little challenged to the gas company’s liability for failing to properly diagnose and repair the furnace and pipes. Id. at 132. The real disagreement came from the landlord. Id. Under Kansas law, a landlord, as a property owner, is responsible for exercising reasonable care under the circumstances to ensure the safety of his tenants. Id. Generally, the tenant is required to maintain the property. Id. However, exceptions exist, including common areas of the property and any part of the party the landlord is contractually required to maintain. Id. at 133.
Looking at this case, the court found that the landlord alone had the ability and responsibility to maintain the furnace shared by the apartments. Id. The landlord had undisputable notice that something was amiss with the furnace, but repeatedly failed to act. Id. This was not reasonable care under the circumstances, and the court was wrong to have found for the landlord. Id. Thus, Plaintiffs were entitled to a new trial. Id.