Mold & Liability
In 1997, Darren and Marcie Mazza rented a unit at Partridge Point Apartments in Sacramento, CA. There they lived without incident until 2000, when they and their 8-year old son began to experience a number of health problems. The Mazza’s wondered if those problems were related to water coming through a vent from a unit above them. They investigated and discovered the presence of toxic mold. They sued and won. The jury awarded them approximately $2.7 million.
Federal and State Laws Related to Mold Liability
Current laws regarding landlord liability related to the presence of mold are uneven at best. There is, to begin, no federal law which covers mold liability, and most states (with a few notable exceptions like California) are similarly silent on the subject. Unfortunately, the lack of any clear guidance and the unwillingness for state and local authorities to address the issue has caused many
landlords (and many insurers) to assume they can’t be sued. That’s a potentially costly mistake.
Rented Properties Must be Livable
Even in states and municipalities which have no written laws regarding mold, landlords are still responsible for keeping their properties “livable.” That means properties must be free of any conditions, such as water intrusion, which by law make their units uninhabitable. By extension, if conditions are demonstrably not “livable” and those conditions lead to illness, landlords can still be held liable, and juries across the country have held them so on that basis and awarded millions in damages.
How Landlords Can Protect Themselves
There are several proactive steps landlords can take to protect themselves against potential lawsuits. Here are 3 you don’t want to skip:
1. Meet with your insurer: take the time to discuss what is and isn’t covered in your policy. Keep your insurer informed of any incidents, such as those involving reports of water intrusion or the actual presence of mold. It’s important that your insurer be a fully-informed partner, and that there be effective, two-way communication between you and him.
2. Review and, if necessary, rework the lease: make sure that your lease explicitly addresses the subject of mold. You could, for example, make it a tenant’s responsibility to schedule and even subsidize sporadic inspections to test for the presence of mold. You can also make it a condition of tenancy for renters to provide you, the landlord, with timely notification regarding conditions which could lead to the presence of mold.
3. Keep your property well-maintained: proper maintenance of your property will reveal conditions, such as leaks, which could lead to the growth of mold. If you feel you don’t have the time to perform regular inspections, you should hire a competent property manager who will do the work for you. Needless to say, if either you or your property manager discovers the presence of mold, have it effectively treated immediately.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the absence of clear legal guidelines frees you from your responsibility to maintain your property and livable conditions. When it comes to the presence of mold and your possible legal liability, it’s better to be safe than sorry.