In the recent decision Ibarra v. Gastelum, the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division 1, found that the Arizona Residential Landlord Tenant Act (“ARLTA”) does not have the specificity required by statute to support a negligence per se personal injury claim. While this seems like a technical decision interpreting obscure and jargon-laced statutes, it has important ramifications for tenants who may be injured by a condition in their rental unit.
When a tenant is injured, they can typically sue their landlord under a theory of negligence. According to Arizona law, “to establish a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) a duty requiring the defendant to conform to a certain standard of care; (2) a breach by the defendant of that standard; (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s conduct and the resulting injury; and (4) actual damages. The first element, whether a duty exists, is a matter of law for the court to decide. The other elements, including breach and causation, are factual issues usually decided by a jury. Gipson v. Kasey, 214 Ariz. 141, 143, 150 P.3d 228, 230 (2007) (internal citations omitted).
The first element, the duty of care, is “an obligation, recognized by law, which requires the defendant to conform to a particular standard of conduct in order to protect others against unreasonable risks of harm.” Id. Arizona law, under both ARLTA and case law, recognizes that landlords owe a duty of care to their tenants to protect them from “unreasonable risks” within their rental units from unsafe conditions. However, it is usually on the tenant as plaintiff to demonstrate that duty of care exists as a matter of law.
One way to eliminate the requirement to prove that a landlord owed a particular duty is under a legal theory of negligence per se. According to Arizona law, “negligence per se results from the violation of specific requirements of law or ordinance. In establishing its existence, the jury need only find that the party committed the specific act prohibited, or omitted to do the specific act required by the statute or ordinance.” Deering v. Carter, 92 Ariz. 329, 333, 376 P.2d 857, 860 (1962). The classic example of negligence per se is in a personal injury case caused by a car accident. If the injured party could prove the other party was speeding when the accident occurred, they would automatically be found to have violated a duty because they were breaking the law when the injury occurred. In a landlord-tenant scenario, if the tenant could prove that the landlord violated a statute that specifically prohibits certain conduct, then the landlord would automatically be found negligent.
So, how does all that background fit into Ibarra v. Gastelum? According to the facts of the case, Ibarra was a long-term tenant in one of Gastelum’s rental units. Over the course of nearly 25 years, Ibarra noticed a crack in the bedroom floor of his apartment that ended up being about two inches wide with sharp edges. Ibarra “stubbed and cut his left big toe on the edge of the crack,” but it became infected and ultimately part of his toe had to be amputated. When Gastelum tried to evict Ibarra for failing to pay rent, Ibarra sued Gastelum on a negligence theory, arguing that ARLTA, found in A.R.S. §§ 33-1301-1381, but specifically in A.R.S. § 33-1324(A)(2), required Gastelum to “make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition.”
However, the Court found that the language in ARLTA describes only “generalized standards, not the “specific or certain acts” required for negligence per se to apply.” Id. at 3.
So, what does this mean for landlords and tenants? For landlords, you can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that a tenant injured in one of your units will still have to prove that you owed them a duty of care, instead of being found automatically negligent by virtue of your status as a landlord. For tenants, on the other hand, if you are injured by a condition in your rental unit, you will still have to prove every element of a negligence claim against your landlord in order to recover.
If you or anyone you know has a landlord tenant question, contact the attorneys at Provident Law®, where we practice in all real estate matters from residential landlord-tenant issues to commercial real estate litigation.
Anne Courchaine is an Associate Attorney with Provident Law®, where she practices real estate, commercial litigation and family law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-388-3343.