Washington's Supreme Court recently issued a decision clarifying injury law in a residential landlord-tenant relationship. Previously, there has been confusion over whether the law—specifically Washington's statutory Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA), Ch. 59.18 RCW, and the common law implied warranty of habitability—could provide a legal basis for liability when an unsafe condition injured the guest of a tenant. The Court's answer was mixed: although the RLTA warranty did not apply to guests, the common law continues to provide a framework for injured persons to seek justice.
For background, tort law typically allows a person injured by a dangerous condition on another's premises to bring an action for damages. This area of law is called premises liability, and the duty the owner or occupier of the land owes is dependent on the injured person's status on the land.
However, a tenancy occupies a special place under the law. There are numerous laws governing the landlord-tenant relationship, including the common law and statutes. At the center of the dispute in Gerlach was the scope of the “warranty of habitability.”
This warranty essentially states that the premises must be fit for human habitation. A landlord who fails to remedy a dangerous condition that renders the premises unsafe for human habitation is liable for the damages. There are, again, two sources for the warranty. First, the RLTA implies the availability of an action for personal injuries. Second, the common law implies the warranty is all residential leases.
Ultimately, the Court limited the scope of the RLTA's duty. The warranty under the RLTA only applies to the tenants because the RLTA was not meant to protect guests. As a result, the common law implied warranty of habitability and general premises liability law dictate the outcome for guests of tenants. In short, in a residential tenancy, a guest of the tenant can bring an action for negligence against the landlord. This can be under the implied warranty of habitability or the premises liability theories.
This is a somewhat complex summary of the law, and it is not intended as legal advice. From time to time, we report on significant or notable cases, especially in Washington and Oregon. Our blog posts are informational only. Consult an attorney if you have questions about any particular instance of an injury.
 A key piece of the Court's decision also dealt with evidentiary principles. Although important in its own right, that piece of the analysis is not the focus of this post.