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Pagelsdorf v. Safeco Ins. Co

    Brief Fact Summary. In Pagelsdorf’s (Plaintiff) claims of negligence in the Circuit Court for Milwaukee County (Wisconsin) the jury verdict in favor of Plaintiff. Plaintiff appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A landlord is under a duty to exercise ordinary care in the maintenance of the premises.

    Facts. Richard J. Mahnke (Defendant) owned a duplex, which had four balcony porches, two on each unit. He rented the upper unit to John and Mary Katherine Blattner (Blattners). Plaintiff was assisting the Blattners in moving from an apartment, when a section of balcony railing gave way. He suffered various injuries when he fell. A subsequent inspection revealed that the railing assembly had dry rot. There was evidence that Defendant had contracted for general repairs of the premises, but that the provision was limited to defects known to him.

    Issue. Did the general common law principle of nonliability of landlords still apply?

    Held. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin concluded that there was no remaining justification for the landlord’s general cloak of common law immunity and abolished the general common law principle of nonliability of landlords toward persons injured as a result of their defective premises. The jury verdict in favor of Defendant on Plaintiff’s claim of negligence was reversed and the case remanded.

    Discussion. Pagelsdorf is representative of the departure from the traditional view, which granted landlords broad preclusion from liability for injuries occurring on their property.
    The traditional view was that a lease was a conveyance of the land, which governed the landlord-tenant relationship. This invested full control in the tenant during the duration of the lease. Thus, the landlord owed no tort duty to the lessee. In the modern view, and as the court in Pagelsdorf articulated, there exist a number of exceptions: common areas, negligent repairs, undisclosed dangerous conditions known to the lessor, lessor’s covenant to repair, premises leased for admission to the public, and dangerous condition to persons outside the leased premises. All jurisdictions have come to recognize these in one form or another. Most jurisdictions now require a plaintiff’s claim to fall within one of these in order to establish that a landlord owes a particular duty. Certain jurisdictions have expanded such liability so that a landlord owes a general duty of reasonable care to all on the land regarding conditions on the leased premises.
    In adopting a more general approach to liability, the court in Pagelsdorf concluded, “[i]f a person lawfully on the premises is injured as a result of the landlord’s negligence in maintaining the premises, he is entitled to recover from the landlord under general negligence principles.” Further, the court added, “[m]odern social conditions called for judicial recognition of a warranty of habitability implied in an apartment.


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