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When Is a Landlord Liable for a Nuisance or
Harm Caused by His Tenant?

Suppose you own a house, and you lease it to a family on a month-to-month basis. a few months later, the next door neighbor comes to you and says that your tenant is repairing cars on the property and has automobile gas tanks and other flammable materials strewn about the yard. Even worse, he tells you that your tenant's children have been seen playing with a cigarette lighter, and he is concerned about the fire danger to his own property.

After his visit, you think it over and conclude it's not your problem. You figure it's not your job to police the activities of your tenant or his children. All you're doing is leasing a house. Besides, you need the rent.

You can guess what happens next. The children start a fire, several explosions follow, the neighbor is badly burned, and his house is destroyed. Then he sues you. And he wins.

This story is true, except that you're not the landlord, of course. Does this mean that every landlord is responsible for acts of his tenants? Not at all. In fact, the general rule is that a landlord is not responsible for the acts of his tenants, including nuisances, dangers, or annoyances created on the property itself. As the above case illustrates, however, there are exceptions.

In order for a landlord to be liable for nuisances created by his tenant, and for the harm that results, three factors must be present:

(1) The nuisance must be one for which the landlord would be liable had he created it himself,

(2) At the time the landlord enters into the lease, he must consent to the activity creating the nuisance or must know or have reason to know that the activity will be carried on at the property, and

(3) At the time the landlord enters into the lease, he then knows or should know that the activity will cause a nuisance.

Why, then, was the landlord found liable in the above case, since he learned of the nuisance after he had entered into the lease? The answer is because a month-to-month lease is treated as a new lease every month. The landlord is under no obligation to continue the arrangement, and may terminate it at virtually any time. Therefore, once the landlord was informed of the fire danger, he had a duty either to see that it was corrected or to refuse to allow the lease to be renewed for another month.

If you, as a landlord, learn of a nuisance or dangerous condition on your property, you have an obligation to correct it as soon as you have the legal power to do so by refusing to renew or extend the lease. You may also be liable if you know or should know at the time you lease the property that your tenant will be creating a nuisance or danger to others.

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