Rental Properties and Smoke Detectors: Who's Responsible?
A recent tragedy may have led to an important win in the push to have smoke detectors installed in residential rental properties. First, the fact that a residential property in 2016 does not have a smoke detectors (regardless of whose ultimate responsibility it is) is a problem. Time and time again, these inexpensive, easy to get and easy to install items have saved lives. This post deals with those areas where no smoke detector ordinance exists and also in areas with the ordinance where an injured party wants to bring a civil negligence case. To date, there has not been a clear decision which has found a landlord has the duty to install smoke detectors in a rental property. The possibility of a negligence action brings the potential for huge civil damages where the landlord fails to perform this duty.
The issue of who is responsible to install smoke detectors in a rental property recently came to the Pennsylvania Courts in a tragic case where three individuals were killed in a fire in a rental unit (one was the rental, one a friend of the renter and the third was the renter's grandson). The fire's cause was determined to be unknown. However, there were no working smoke detectors in the home. The estates' of each of the deceased filed a lawsuit against the landlords. One theory alleged was that the landlord was negligent in not installing smoke detectors in the rental property. The trial court dismissed this claim. The trial court stated, "a landlord's general duty to protect tenants from dangerous conditions did not include the installation of smoke detectors." Ramirez v. Holley, No. 1344 WDA 2015 at 4. However, this was appealed and reversed by the appellate court. The Pennsylvania Superior Court re-instated the claim and sent it back for trial on the smoke detector issue.
The Superior Court stated that a cause of action for negligence could be made if (1) a dangerous condition existed - i.e. the lack of smoke detectors; (2) the existence of that condition was a violation of an implied warranty of habitability, a statute or administrative regulation; (3) the landlords were aware of the condition; (4) the landlords failed to exercise reasonable care to correct the condition; and (5) the lack of smoke detectors harmed the renters.
While the Court did not come out and explicitly state that a landlord was responsible for the installation of smoke detectors (and given that the nature of appeal and state of the matter at this time it would not be expected), the door is open for such a ruling in the future. The court's attitude on the issue seemed to be on the side of finding a landlord negligent where there are no smoke detectors installed in a residential rental.