Tennessee Landlord Liable When Light Fixture Fell

Where a tenant told her landlord about a leak in her kitchen ceiling, the landlord was liable when the light fixture in the ceiling later fell and injured the tenant.

In Holloway v. Group Properties LLC, No. W2016-02417-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 24, 2017), plaintiff noticed a water leak in her kitchen ceiling about two months after moving into her rented apartment. She told her landlord, who “inspected the property but did not find the leak [and] therefore, he did not contact a plumber.” There was a dispute as to whether plaintiff contacted defendant landlord again regarding the leak, but eventually the light fixture in the kitchen fell, striking plaintiff and causing water to fall onto the floor. Plaintiff slipped and fell in the water and was injured.

Plaintiff filed suit in sessions court and won a judgment of $4,940. Defendant appealed to circuit court, where plaintiff was awarded $5,040. The circuit court specifically found that defendant “was on notice of a leak coming from the second floor of the duplex.” Defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Defendant asserted two arguments on appeal: 1) that plaintiff’s complaint “fail[ed] to state a claim for relief under the [Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA)],” and 2) that plaintiff’s “sole recourse [was] pursuant to URLTA.”

As to the failure to state a claim, the Court cited Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 8.01, which requires a claim to contain “(1) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (2) a demand for judgment for the relief the pleader seeks.” The Court pointed out that plaintiff’s sessions court pleading stated the relationship between the parties and asserted that defendant “had a duty to repair the ceiling after [plaintiff] notified it of the leak,” and that defendant’s “negligence stems from its failure to make necessary repairs.” The Court ruled that this was “adequate to state a claim for relief under either the URLTA or under a theory of common law negligence.”

Next, defendant argued that plaintiff only had a claim under the URLTA, and since she did not give notice under that statute, her claim should have failed. The Court of Appeals found, though, that there was “no authority for the proposition that a plaintiff may not assert negligence claims against his or her landlord under both theories,” and pointed out that its “research reveal[ed] several cases in which this Court has considered URLTA claims and common law claims in the same lawsuit.” Further, the Court noted that the “notice requirement under the URLTA…would only affect the type of damages [plaintiff could] receive.” Had the URLTA notice been given, plaintiff could have been awarded attorneys’ fees, but since that was not an element of damages at issue in this suit the notice was irrelevant. Finally, the Court found that the “prima facie case for negligence, under either the URLTA or the common law, is ostensibly the same.” Under either, “the landlord must have notice of the defective condition on the leased premises.” Here, the trial court specifically found that defendant landlord had notice, and thus the landlord had a duty to “locate the defect, and repair it” under either common law negligence or the URLTA.

Ultimately, the Court affirmed the judgment for plaintiff, holding: “Because [defendant] had notice of the water leak, [defendant] had a duty to find and repair the source of the leak. Having failed to do so, [defendant] is liable for injuries sustained by [plaintiff] when the fixture and ceiling fell on her.”

The Court of Appeals got this one right. When a tenant has told a landlord about a problem and the landlord has failed to repair it, the landlord should be liable for injuries later sustained due to the reported problem.