In premises liability cases, an individual goes to a residence, business, or other property and experiences an injury due to a condition on the property. Then, the injured party sues the property owner because they failed to provide a safe environment. Now, if a tenant has leased the property – who is liable? In this post, we explain Michigan laws affecting tenants and landlords, then highlight a recent Court of Appeals case to show how liability is analyzed and assigned.
Michigan Premises Liability Laws for Landlords and Tenants
Overall, Michigan law centers on this principle: all landowners have a duty to those who enter their land. The extent of their duty varies based on the visitor’s status. If a visitor is invited to the property, owners must use reasonable care to protect them from unreasonable harm posed by any dangerous conditions.
Is safety guaranteed? No.
In landlord-tenant situations, determining liability for a visitor’s injuries can be complicated.
As owners of the property, are landlords always liable as owners? No. Ownership doesn’t equate to liability.
Instead, liability is established by evaluating who possesses and controls the property at the time of the accident. Typically, tenants are in control and in possession. Individuals they bring to the property are their invitees and they have a duty to protect them from unreasonable harm.
Does a lease agreement shift liability from the landlord to the tenant? Again, no.
There are additional factors to consider.
- If landlords retain exclusive or shared control over common areas, they’re liable.
- If any defects existed when the lease was entered into, and injuries resulted from those defects later, the landlord is liable.
- Landlords have a duty to investigate issues and take preventative measures when tenants notify them of issues. Failing to do so may result in liability.
- If landlords delegate maintenance tasks to contractors, they may be liable for the contractor’s work.
- A dangerous condition doesn’t automatically establish liability. There must be a reason why the tenant or landlord should have discovered the condition.
Who is liable in Lixey v. L&M Leasing, Inc.?
In March 2023, the Michigan Court of Appeals considered many of these laws to decide the outcome of Lixey v. L&M Leasing, Inc. In this case, Ms. Lixey was visiting a health care professional who sublet a room from MI Float (tenant) who leased a portion of the building from L&M Leasing (landlord).
Upon her visit, Ms. Lixey walked down the hallway to use the restroom but mistakenly opened the basement door. She stepped inside to turn on the light and fell down the basement stairs. Later, she sued L&M Leasing asserting that – as the building owner – it failed to keep the premises safe and was responsible for her injuries.
The Court of Appeals ruled that L&M Leasing wasn’t liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. Here’s why.
- Factor #1 – L&M Leasing and MI Float shared control over the hallway and basement door, therefore, L&M Leasing had some responsibility to maintain both areas. While the basement door was shared, the basement was not. L&M Leasing gave MI Float permission to access the basement during business hours, but were expected to keep the door locked. At the time of Ms. Lixey’s accident, a MI Float employee had left the door unlocked.
- Factor #2 – MI Float was in a position to lock the door and address the hallway lighting. It didn’t.
- Factor #3 – L&M Leasing had no reason to know the door was unlocked and the hallway lighting needed maintenance. Previous defects didn’t exist, and MI Float didn’t report lighting issues before the accident.
- Factor #4 – MI Float’s lessee had posted a directional sign in the hallway, confusing Ms. Lixey and contributing to the accident.
As a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed that MI Float was liable for Ms. Lixey’s accident, not L&M Leasing.
What could have changed the court’s ruling?
In Lixey v. L&M Leasing, the judges closely examined the lease agreement, timeline, specific properties involved in the case, who had control and possession, who had reason to know of issues, and more. Given what we know about the case and premises liability laws, what could have changed the appellate court’s ruling?
- No lease agreement – if there was no lease agreement documenting a tenant-landlord relationship, L&M Leasing may have been liable.
- A vague lease agreement – if the lease agreement hadn’t excluded the basement or given MI Float some control over common areas, L&M Leasing may have been liable.
- Communication – if MI Float had communicated lighting issues to L&M Leasing, L&M Leasing would have had the necessary information to take action.
Overall, simple actions could have prevented the accident altogether – lock the basement door, address the hallway lighting, and remove or update the sign directing guests to the restroom. MI Float was in a position to handle all of these, and as the tenant in control of these areas, it was their responsibility.
Premises liability cases can arise out of the simplest situations and become highly intricate, especially when multiple parties and properties are involved. If you’re faced with a premises liability lawsuit, consult with your lawyer immediately. If you need a lawyer experienced in premises liability law, contact Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge.
About the Author
Mark Gilchrist has been practicing law in Michigan for more than 20 years. His experience includes professional liability, commercial litigation, negligence, and general liability. Mark earned his Juris Doctor from Wayne State University School of Law and is actively involved with the State Bar of Michigan’s Negligence Section and the Michigan Defense Trial Counsel.
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