RENTER BEWARE: Hidden Risks in Lease Agreements

With home prices soaring in today’s housing market, many people choose to rent rather than buy. Factored into their decision is the style, the square footage, the location, and other criteria, but few renters consider one risk that comes with many, if not most, leases. Many renters are exposed to personal liability for accidents occurring on the premises, and they don’t even know it.

A lease is executed between the renter/tenant (the “lessee”) and the property owner (the “lessor”). By law, the lease imposes general obligations on both parties.

The lessee (renter) is bound:

1. to pay the rent in accordance with the agreed terms;

2. to use the thing as a prudent administrator and in accordance with the purpose of which it was leased; and,

3. to return the thing at the end of the lease in a condition that is the same as it was when the thing was delivered to him, except for normal wear and tear. LSA C.C. Art. 2683

The lessor (property owner) is bound:

1. to deliver the thing to the lessee;

2. to maintain the thing in a condition suitable for the purpose of which is was leased; and,

3. to protect the lessee’s peaceful possession for the duration of the lease.” LSA C.C. Art. 2682.

These general obligations are typically expanded by terms in the lease because the lessee and lessor are “free to contract for any object that is lawful, possible and determined or determinable.” Family Care Services, Inc. v. Owens, 46 So.3d 234 (La. App. 2 Cir. 8/11/10). This “freedom of contract” allows the parties to construct their own bargains, shifting certain rights and obligations. In many commercial and residential lease agreements, this shifting includes a transfer of the liability for vices or defects on or in the leased premises.

Although the lessor warrants that the leased premises is free of vices or defects, Louisiana law allows the lessee to assume responsibility for the condition of the leased premises under LA. R.S. 9:3221. Often, lessees assume that the lessor, as the owner of the premises, will be responsible if there is an accident. However, cases such as Jamison v. D’Amico, 955 So.2d 161 (La. App. 4th Cir. 3/14/07) demonstrate that the owner may be entirely free of fault even though they owned a defective premises which caused an accident. In Jamison, a worker was injured when a floor collapsed beneath her. There was insufficient evidence that the owner was aware of the defective floor. Because the lease contained a clause shifting responsibility, the owner was under no duty to inspect the premises and was dismissed from the case.

A lesson to all renters: read and understand the provisions in your lease. Even if you like the colors and the location, you should also like the lease contract before you sign it.