If You Break It, You Have to Pay to Fix It

Postema is the editor of Apartment Age Magazine, a publication of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA), an apartment owners' service group.

QUESTION: I leaned against a glass panel of the front door at my Anaheim apartment and it shattered. I cut my left hand and had to go to the emergency room. I called the landlord to have him get the glass replaced, but he told me he is not responsible and I have to repair it myself at my expense.

Here are my questions. Am I responsible for the damage to the glass, even though it was an accident? If not, how can we persuade the landlord to initiate repairs? Is the landlord responsible for my injuries?

The glass shattered into pieces when I leaned against it. Isn't it supposed to be shatter-proof?

Also, what if someone threw a rock through the window? Am I responsible for that repair? And if someone slipped on the front sidewalk, is the tenant or the landlord liable for the injuries sustained in the slip?

ANSWER: There is no law requiring shatter-proof glass for doors and windows, as there is for shower doors, for instance. Therefore, the owner is not required to supply it.

The general rule for broken door and window glass is that if you break it, you pay. If someone throws a rock through the window, assuming it's not one of the tenants or a guest of a tenant, then the landlord pays for the repair.

It is always the landlord's responsibility to have repairs affecting health or safety made to apartments. If the damage was caused by a tenant, the landlord can then either deduct the repair expense from the security deposit or may sue the tenant for the money in small claims court.

As for your slip-and-fall question, unless the victim can demonstrate negligence on the part of the landlord or tenant, neither would be liable. On the other hand, either or both could be wholly or partially liable, depending on their respective levels of negligence.

There Are Limits to Landlord's Liability

Q: Recently, there was an arson fire in the parking lot at the Lancaster apartment building where I live. A vehicle, which is registered to an owner in a different city, was set ablaze. Fifteen days later the same vehicle was torched again. This time the fire spread throughout the carport, destroying my vehicle and four others.

My lease agreement holds the owners "harmless for any negligence whatsoever." Even if that's true, I believe that there is negligence on the part of the property management company. They knew that there was a public nuisance existing on the property and did nothing to remove the hazard.

I have contacted all the lawyers in this city and I cannot get one to take my case without high, up-front fees, which I cannot afford.

I would greatly appreciate your opinion on this matter, as well as a referral to a lawyer.

A: Property owners, and their managers, cannot absolve themselves from liability from any negligence claim by simply inserting a paragraph like the one you've described in their rental agreements.

The problem now is proving that the owners, managers or both were negligent. If no attorney in the entire city of Lancaster is willing to take your case on a contingency basis, without high, up-front legal fees, that's a pretty good indication that they probably don't see negligence on the part of the owners or managers.

Since the owners or managers probably couldn't foresee either arson, they probably aren't negligent or liable. If you have comprehensive car insurance, the fire damage should be covered under that policy.

Similarly, if your apartment is broken into and burglarized, unless you can "prove" negligence on the part of the landlord or management, you cannot recover for any damages resulting from the break-in except for the repair of the door or window through which the burglars entered. Generally, an insurance policy called renters' insurance provides protection from burglary.

Leases Specifying Tenants Are Legal

Q: My sister and her husband signed a seven-year lease in 1986 for a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. When her husband died a few weeks ago, my sister decided that she would need to take a roommate to help pay the rent.

She asked permission of the landlord for a new roommate, pursuant to the lease, and her request was denied. The lease says, "Without owner's prior written consent, the premises shall be occupied only by the undersigned adults. . . ."

This seems to be an injustice to me. Logic dictates that if there were two people occupying the unit previously, two can occupy it now. We have sought the opinion of a Legal Aid group here in Santa Monica. They agree with the landlord's position. What do you think?

A: People not named in the lease cannot occupy the unit now, as you've indicated. Such occupancy is specifically prohibited in the lease you sent.

Ordinances in the cities of Los Angeles and West Hollywood provide for one added tenant, however, over and above the lease or rental agreement. That's not the case in the city of Santa Monica, or most other California cities.

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