Chapter 5321 of the Ohio Revised Code, known as the Landlord-Tenant Act, governs the rights and duties of landlords and tenants in Ohio.  Among other things, the Act requires Landlords to maintain rental properties in a fit and habitable condition, and to keep all common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition.  Recently, in Mann v. Northgate Investors, LLC, the Ohio Supreme Court was asked to determine whether these duties extend not only to tenants, but also to tenants’ guests.

Lauren Mann filed the lawsuit after suffering injuries at Northgate’s apartment building. Mann had been visiting a friend who was a tenant in Northgate’s building. She left her friend’s apartment around 11:00 p.m., and descended two flights of stairs in the dark because there were no functioning lights in the stairway.  When she reached the ground floor, Mann stumbled into a glass panel adjacent to the exit doors, thereby injuring herself.

In her lawsuit, Mann alleged that Northgate negligently failed to maintain adequate lighting for safe ingress and egress into the premises in violation its duties under R.C. 5321.04(A)(3).  The trial court, however, granted summary judgment for Northgate, finding that the Landlord-Tenant Act was intended to establish duties between landlords and tenants, not their guests.  The trial court determined that because Mann was classified as a “business invitee,” Northgate only owed her a duty of ordinary care. The trial court further held that the darkness on the stairs was open and obvious, and that the duty of ordinary care is negated when the hazard posed to the invitee is open and obvious.

Ohio’s 10th District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. Unlike the trial court, the 10th District determined that guests are entitled to protection under the Landlord-Tenant Act. The 10th District further held that the Landlord’s violation of its duty to keep the common areas safe constitutes negligence per se, meaning that the open and obvious doctrine did not apply to negate the landlord’s duties.

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to hear the case because the 10th District’s opinion conflicted with the Ninth District’s decision in Shumaker v. Park Lane Manor of Akron, Inc. The Ohio Supreme Court issued its decision on February 12, 2014, in which it held that “a landlord owes to a tenant’s guest the same duty that the landlord owes a tenant.” Therefore, the Court found that Northgate owed a duty to Mann under R.C. 5321.04(A)(3) to keep the common areas of the premises in a safe and sanitary condition. The Court further held that a landlord’s violation of this statutory duty constitutes negligence per se and obviates the open- and- obvious- danger doctrine.

This case should serve as reminder to landlords of their duties under the Landlord-Tenant Act. Landlords who fail to comply with their statutory duties risk facing lawsuits not only from their tenants, but to guests who are properly on the premises. The Finney Law Firm has extensive experience in both residential and commercial leasing disputes. Please contact our office if you have any questions about current or prospective leasing arrangements.