Premises Liability in the Landlord-Tenant Context

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July 23, 2009

The general rule regarding premises liability in the landlord-tenant context is that landlords owe a duty of reasonable care as to those parts of the property over which they have retained control.[1] Landlords, however, generally do not have a duty to keep in repair any portion of the premises leased to and in the exclusive possession and control of the tenant.[2] The issue of whether the landlord retained control over a specific area of the premises is essentially a matter of intention to be determined in the light of all the significant circumstances.[3]

Thus, unless it is definitely expressed in the lease, the circumstances of the particular case determine whether the lessor has reserved control of the premises or whether they were under the exclusive dominion of the tenant, and it becomes a question of fact and is a matter of intention in the light of all the significant and attendant facts which bear on the issue.[4] In other words, if the terms of control are not express between the parties, the question of who retains control over a specific part of the property is an issue of fact and a matter of intent that can be determined only in light of all the relevant circumstances.

The Landlord Tenant Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47a-1, et seq., has a number of provisions relevant to premises liability issues.[5] The Act defines an owner of real property, subject to the mandates of its provisions, to include any one or more persons in whom legal title to a property is vested.[6] It defines a landlord in relevant part as "the owner ... of the dwelling unit, the building of which it is a part and facilities and appurtenances therein and grounds, areas and facilities held out for the use of tenants generally or whose use is promised to the tenant."[7] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47a-7 sets forth the responsibilities of a residential landlord. Subsection (a) states a landlord's responsibility in mandatory terms, and it specifically requires, among several other things, that a landlord keep all common areas in a clean and safe condition.[8] It says nothing that would limit that responsibility to those landlords who are in possession and control of the premises.

In Kriz v. Coldwell Banker Real Estate,[9] the plaintiff injured person sued defendants, landlords and tenant of a building where she fell and injured herself. The plaintiff, a real estate agent, arrived at the building owned by the landlords one night to return a key to the tenant, a real estate firm. An employee of the tenant had earlier turned off the exterior lights to the building, and when he saw the real estate agent, turned off the interior lights as well. The real estate agent then fell in the darkness. The Appellate Court held that exclusive possession and control of the light switch that illuminated the common area was not specified in the lease, and was a disputed fact. The case was remanded for a new trial.

[1] Gore v. People's Savings Bank, 235 Conn. 360, 374 (1995).

[2] See 2 Restatement (Second), Torts § 421 (1965) (nondelegable duty arises when possessor of land, having leased part of land, still owes a duty to maintain in reasonably safe condition that part of land retained by him.)

[3] Dinnan v. Jozwiakowski, 156 Conn. 432, 434 (1968).

[4] Panaroni v. Johnson, 158 Conn. 92, 98 (1969).

[5] Baldwin v. Curtis, 105 Conn. App. 844 (2008).

[6] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47a-1(e).

[7] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47a-1(g).

[8] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47a-7(a)(3).

[9] 67 Conn. App. 688 (2002).