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Landlord’s duties and liabilities expanded

In a recurring sketch on “Saturday Night Live” years ago, Eddie Murphy played Mr. Robinson (denizen of Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.) One week, he recited a poem entitled “Kill My Landlord.”

The California Court of Appeal, in a recent decision, did NOT authorize the killing of commercial landlords – but certainly made life more difficult for them. In the case of Stone vs. Center Trust Retail Properties, Inc., the Court has ruled that after entry of an unlawful detainer judgment, a commercial landlord has a duty to inspect the defaulting tenant’s premises for possible hazardous conditions – even if the landlord has not yet taken back possession.

Longtime readers may recognize this case, because this recent decision represented the lawsuit’s second trip to the Court of Appeal. The facts were as follows. The Gumboz Creole Cajun restaurant was a tenant in a Los Angeles mall owned by Center Trust. The restaurant defaulted on its rent, and Center Trust served a five-day notice to pay rent or quit. The restaurant neither paid rent nor vacated the premises, so Center Trust filed an unlawful detainer complaint against the restaurant.



The unlawful detainer court restored possession of the premises to Center Trust. Before the Sheriff was able to serve the possession order on the restaurant, Sheila Stone hosted a party at the restaurant, which was still operating. While dancing at the party, she slipped on a wet floor and badly injured her ankle. She sued the restaurant and Center Trust. At trial, the jury awarded her damages against both.

When the case first came up before the Court of Appeal, the damages award was upheld. But now, after a rehearing, the Court has decided to broaden the obligations of a landlord to address hazardous conditions on property occupied by a defaulting tenant.




This time, the Court has ruled that once a landlord has commenced eviction proceedings against a tenant, the landlord has a duty to inspect the property for possible neglect of the premises’ physical conditions Ð at least where the landlord has reason to believe that the premises were being neglected. The Court determined that this duty exists even if the landlord has not yet recovered possession of the premises. “To protect the public,” the Court said, “the incentive to maintain the property must not be an orphan abandoned by a tenant and ignored by a shortly reoccupying landlord.”

The Court did not specifically define the level of knowledge a landlord must have, concerning possible neglect of the property, before this duty to inspect takes effect. But apparently a little knowledge is enough; the Court found that “Center Trust knew defaulting tenants sometimes neglected property”, and knew that the restaurant was violating its lease by running the dance club on the premises. This was enough, the Court said, to trigger the landlord’s duty to inspect the premises after the restaurant defaulted on its rent.

This decision may have quite a ripple effect. It may impact lenders who extend financing to commercial landlords, because it increases the risk that a landlord will be found liable for injuries suffered by visitors to the premises even if the landlord has not taken back possession. In addition, if a landlord commences eviction proceedings and the tenant stops those proceedings by filing for bankruptcy, it may behoove the landlord to seek relief from the “automatic stay” in bankruptcy so that it can proceed with the eviction and secure the premises.

* * * * *

In another recent case, a different panel of Court of Appeal justices has pointed out that when a plaintiff sues a defendant for wrongful acts, there are real limits to the plaintiff’s ability to present evidence that the defendant has committed other similar acts in the past.

In the case of Bowen vs. Ryan, a young boy sued the defendant dentist over an incident which allegedly had occurred a few years earlier, when the plaintiff was 8 years old. Dr. Ryan had been in practice for about 28 years and testified that he had seen 35,000 to 45,000 patients during that time. His patients were mostly children, some of whom had been referred by other dentists because they were difficult to treat.

The plaintiff sued the dentist for assault, battery and professional negligence. The boy claimed that Dr. Ryan had choked and restrained him, threatened him, and slammed him against a wall. While the dentist denied most of the allegations against him, the plaintiff presented the testimony of 13 witnesses who described nine other incidents of mistreatment, including face-slapping and yelling. Two witnesses testified that children’s faces had handprints on them (as if they had been slapped) following their dental treatments.

The jury awarded damages to the plaintiff, but the Court of Appeal reversed the decision, ruling that the testimony of other patients about unrelated treatment by the dentist should not have been allowed.

The California Evidence Code generally prohibits the introduction of evidence of character traits, or specific instances of conduct, if the purpose of the evidence is to prove a person’s conduct on a specific occasion. However, the Evidence Code does permit the introduction of evidence that a person committed other acts when relevant to prove a common plan or design. In this case, the plaintiff argued that the evidence of other incidents of alleged misconduct with the young patients was indeed evidence of a common plan or design.

The Court disagreed, because none of the witnesses to the prior acts alleged precisely the same kind of misconduct by the dentist. Unlike the other witnesses, the plaintiff did not allege that he had been hit or yelled at, but rather, that he was choked and slammed against a wall. Further, the Court said, nine incidents out of up to 45,000 do not establish a pattern of abuse.

While the case might be retried, no testimony will be permitted concerning the other alleged instances of misconduct by the dentist.

The testimony concerning the nine other alleged incidents was obviously very disturbing, and may well have influenced the jury’s decision. It was apparently for that reason that the Court bent over backwards to protect the defendant’s right to be judged solely on the evidence relevant to his own conduct in this specific case.

Peter C. Bronson, of Nevada County, is a partner in the Sacramento offices of Kelly Lytton & Vann LLP. His law practice emphasizes creditors’ rights, insolvency, commercial litigation and mediation. Write him at pbronson@klmvlaw.com. This column is not intended as legal advice in any specific business situation or dispute; specific strategic decisions always depend upon the specific facts.


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