In the case Reyes v. Egner, the tenant (Reyes) renting a vacation home for a two-week holiday brought her elderly father along for the trip. He fell on a hidden step with no handrail, which should have had one under the building code, and severely injured himself.
When the tenant sued the beach house’s landlords (Harry and Holly Egner) and the real estate broker who rented it out, the landlords defended themselves and the broker from the suit on grounds that because the step defect was not obvious, they were not liable unless they had "fraudulently concealed" the defect. The trial court agreed, clarifying that either (a) the defect was obvious or (b) it was non-obvious but not concealed by the landlords, concluding that either way, the landlords could not be held liable, and dismissed the case.
The trial court also dismissed the case against the real estate broker, on grounds that the broker’s duties were limited per the contract, and did not include inspecting the property or repairing it for the benefit of the tenant.
The appeals court disagreed with the trial court’s dismissal of the case against the landlords, overturning the trial court’s decision and ordering a new trial. On appeal, the court found that the very short-term nature of the vacation-house lease rendered it unreasonable to expect that the tenant and her family would have discovered the step defect as a long-term, residential tenant could be expected to do.
The appellate court went on to express that, because of the nature of a vacation home and the frequent turnover of tenants, the property’s landlords are in a better position than the tenants to inspect and maintain or repair the home, and so should be held responsible to do so.
The court held that fraudulent concealment was not required to hold the landlords liable for the elderly visitor’s injuries; if the landlords had reason to be aware of the defect — e.g., the fact that the lack of a handrail violated the municipal code — a judge or jury should be given the case to decide whether they were liable. A new trial was ordered.
However, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that the broker’s duties did not extend to inspecting the property for defects to warn or repair them for the tenant. The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case against the real estate broker.
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.
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