In 2012, a cleaning company employee slipped and fell on soapy water that spilled from a bucket he’d been carrying up the stairs on his way to clean a dental office suite. He was able to collect workers’ compensation benefits, but as it turned out, the stairs on which he’d fallen didn’t conform to the codes set forth either by the industry or the local building guidelines. This gave rise to a third party lawsuit against the landlords of the property. stairs1

However, the landlords in a cross-motion sought to hold accountable their tenant – that dentist – who had been renting the suite from them. Had the dentist not hired the cleaning crew to clean the carpets in his unit, they’d never have been in the building in the first place and therefore, it was the tenant dentist who should pay, not the landlords.

In Morlin Asset Mgt. v. Murachanian, the question for the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District, Division Eight, was whether the terms of the lease between landlord and tenant extended to claims or liabilities arising in this accident, which occurred in a common area of the building over which the tenant didn’t actually have any control. The answer was no, and therefore the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the tenant dentist in this case was proper. That means injured plaintiff may proceed with his complaint against the property owners without having to worry the non-party tenant may be assigned liability that he might not have to pay, considering he wasn’t named a defendant in the original complaint. 

According to court records, plaintiff was walking up a flight of stairs when he slipped, fell forward and suffered severe injuries. He sued the two landlords who owned the property, arguing they failed to address a dangerous condition on the site caused by treads and risers that failed to conform to the industry standards or building codes in a number of respects.

During the course of discovery, a medical doctor ascertained that the surface of the floor was especially slippery because the water that had fallen onto it was soapy, making falls even more likely. The heavy bucket had caught the stair, water spilled and it was on plaintiff’s very next step that he fell.

Defendants filed a motion to require the tenant dentist to provide indemnification. The dentist argued that because the incident occurred in a common area of the building – not on the unit he leased – he shouldn’t be liable.

During discovery, an engineer for the property testified that he instructed to notify him each and every time the cleaning crew was coming to the property because on several occasions, they had wrongly hooked up the hose. The tenant also stated that any time he was having any work done – whether air conditioning service or carpet cleaning – he was required to inform the property owners so they would have ample notice and could have someone on site overseeing the work.

Tenant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was opposed by the defense but granted by the court.

On appeal, defendants argued there were triable issues of material fact. Specifically, there were questions regarding the extent to which the agency was negligent for creating a condition that caused or contributed to plaintiff’s fall and injuries.

But the state appellate court affirmed, finding that the lease terms limited tenant liability to the suite he controlled – not to defects or dangerous conditions leading to a slip-and-fall in the common areas he did not control.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Morlin Asset Mgt. v. Murachanian, Aug. 8, 2016, California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District, Division Eight

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