Don’t assume landlord’s insurance covers all damage

Rent it Right

Q: I read a recent New York Times article about renters insurance, which quoted an insurance professional who warned that if a tenant’s possessions are damaged, "the landlord’s policy is not going to cover your damages." But the article says there’s "an exception to that … if the landlord was ‘aware of a prior hazardous condition, failed to correct it in a reasonable time frame, and your property was damaged.’"

I’m confused — as a landlord, am I insuring my tenant’s property if it’s damaged as a result of my carelessness? –Paul B.

A: Your confusion is understandable. In a sense, this insurance professional was right: Tenants in this situation might get some money from the landlord’s carrier. But it’s not correct to conclude that when landlord carelessness is involved, the landlord’s policy will "cover" the tenant. Once you see how these claims work, you’ll see what I mean.

Here’s a typical scenario:

Suppose Sam’s computer, which he left on the kitchen floor while it was recharging, is ruined when the pipes burst under the kitchen sink, causing a flood. Sam’s landlord had supposedly fixed the leak just that day, but a plumber later confirms that the landlord did a shoddy job. It’s pretty clear that the landlord was careless.

Sam’s landlord has property insurance, but that insurance covers only the landlord’s property; it wouldn’t extend to Sam’s computer. The landlord also has liability insurance, which covers the landlord when his carelessness results in damages or injury.

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If Sam the tenant has renters insurance …

Here’s how things would play out if Sam has his own policy. Sam takes pictures of the floor and his computer, gets a statement from a computer repair shop and the plumber, and submits the claim to his insurance carrier. The company pays Sam; most companies do not dispute these claims unless they have solid reasons to suspect fraud. Sam buys another computer. (Hopefully, he’s got "replacement value," not "actual cash value" coverage, which results in enough money to cover the total cost of a new computer.) Sam’s carrier can go after the landlord (known as "subrogation") to get reimbursed, but because this is a small claim, it probably won’t. Even if it did, Sam wouldn’t be involved.

If Sam has no renters insurance …

In the absence of his own policy, Sam wants the landlord to pay for the results of his shoddy repair. He sends documentation of the damage to the landlord, demanding reimbursement. Sam cannot make a claim on the landlord’s property policy, because that policy did not insure Sam’s stuff.

The landlord then has three options: Pay Sam; refer the claim to his carrier, which will treat it as a claim against the landlord’s liability policy; or ignore Sam. If he doesn’t pay voluntarily but refers the claim, the carrier will get in touch with Sam and probably settle. But if he simply ignores Sam, Sam will have to sue the landlord to get his money. Even then, the landlord is under no obligation to involve his insurance company, and may choose not to in order to keep his record clean.

If Sam wins in small claims court, he will get a judgment that he will have to collect. But if the landlord won’t pay, he can’t just present the judgment to the landlord’s insurance company. Instead, he will have to attach the landlord’s bank account or garnish his wages.

So you see, Sam may eventually get his money from the landlord’s carrier, but only if the landlord chooses to involve the insurance company, and only if they settle or Sam wins in court. That’s a far cry from saying that the landlord’s insurance will "cover" damage to the tenant’s property caused by the landlord’s carelessness. The bottom line: It’s a lot easier to have your own coverage and let the insurance companies sort it out.

Q: The lease I’ve been asked to sign has an odd clause concerning attorney’s fees and costs in case there’s a lawsuit. It says that the loser will pay the winner, but only up to $1,500. Is this legal? –Geoff S.

A: Lawsuits between landlords and tenants can arise over the meaning and implementation of the lease, or over issues that aren’t covered by the lease. A lawsuit over the landlord’s retention of the security deposit is an example of the first kind; a tenant’s claim that the landlord charged her more rent because of her race is an example of the second.

Whether your landlord’s attempt to limit the loser’s liability for court costs and fees will hold up depends on the kind of lawsuit at issue, and on what your state law has to say about the matter. Let’s take a look at each situation.

Lawsuits over the lease

Some landlord-tenant disputes arise when one side claims that the other isn’t abiding by the lease terms, or is implementing them in a way that is contrary to the spirit of the lease. For example, a landlord might claim that a tenant is failing to take reasonable care of the property, in violation of the lease clause that requires such care, and terminate accordingly. The tenant contests the ensuing eviction lawsuit, and one side wins. In this situation, your lease’s cap on the loser’s liability might hold up, as long as there’s no state law or policy that would lead a judge to strike it down.

But suppose the lawsuit is over the tenant’s use of a rent-withholding remedy, which was followed by the landlord’s decision to take away the tenant’s parking privileges. The tenant, claiming unlawful retaliation, sues and wins. Will the cap be applied? That depends on whether the anti-retaliation statute itself requires the loser to pay the winner’s costs. When retaliation is involved, many statutes include this type of provision.

For example, California law specifies, "In any action brought for damages for retaliatory eviction, the court shall award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party if either party requests attorney’s fees upon the initiation of the action." (Cal. Civil Code § 1942.5(g).)

The statute in Illinois does not provide for these fees (765 Il. Comp. Stat. § 720/1), but Texas law does (Tx. Prop. Code Ann. § 92.333).

So, if your state’s anti-retaliation statute requires the loser to pay reasonable fees, but the loser’s attorney fees exceed $1,500, will a court uphold the lease’s attempt to vary the statutory rule? It depends. Sometimes, courts allow landlords and tenants to vary the rules, but often they don’t.

For example, courts won’t uphold a lease clause that relieves a landlord of the duty to maintain fit housing.

Lawsuits that arise independently of the lease

Now, suppose you’re dealing with a legal spat that does not have its origin in the lease, such as a discrimination lawsuit. It’s doubtful that a hearing officer or a judge would apply a lease clause that attempted to limit the liability of the losing party. Often, the antidiscrimination statute itself specifies that the loser will pay.

And from a practical point of view, such a limitation would limit the number of cases brought to challenge illegal landlord acts, which is not what state legislators want.

Here’s the problem: Imagine a winning tenant whose attorney has billed for many thousands of dollars, as is common. If the losing landlord is responsible for only $1,500, the balance will have to come from the winning tenant. If the award to the tenant in the lawsuit is modest, the lawyer could end up with most of it. Knowing that this may be how things turn out, tenants may be discouraged from bringing such suits, which is not what legislators intended when they wrote laws proscribing discrimination.

For this reason, a court might refuse to apply a lease clause that limits the loser’s liability for the winner’s fees.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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