This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Donald Salmela, et al.,
Filed April 29, 2003
Robert H. Schumacher, Judge
Linc S. Deter, Brett W. Olander & Associates, 1000 Fifth Street Center, 55 East Fifth Street, St. Paul, MN 55101-2701 (for respondents)
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
ROBERT H. SCHUMACHER, Judge
Appellants Timothy Stauffenecker and Maureen Sullivan argue that the district court erred in granting respondents Donald and Diane Salmela's motion for summary judgment. Appellants maintain that respondents are liable as property owners for Stauffenecker's injuries sustained when he fell down the basement stairs in the home that appellants rented from respondents. Appellants maintain that respondents knew or should have known the basement stairs were hazardous and were not in compliance with applicable building code provisions and that the lease provisions created a duty to inspect, maintain and repair the stairs.
Respondents argue that the district court ruled correctly because any hazard was not hidden, the lease did not create any additional duties relative to inspection and repair, and the stairs were not in their control at the time of the accident. We affirm.
Respondents own two double bungalows at 1425/27 and 1435/37 Garland Avenue in Plymouth, Minnesota. Sullivan moved into the 1425 unit in the fall of 1998. In the summer of 1999, Stauffenecker moved in with Sullivan. They were married in June 2000.
The unit has stairs leading to the basement. The stairs serve only appellants' unit. Appellants used the basement to store Stauffenecker's hunting and fishing equipment and to do laundry. Stauffenecker is an avid hunter and fisherman, making 100 to 200 hunting and fishing trips each year. By Stauffenecker's own estimate, he had gone up and down the stairs at issue at least 200 times in the year-and-a-half he lived in the unit.
In 1995 or 1996, the city of Plymouth adopted a rental-licensing law, requiring regular inspections by a city inspector. At the initial inspection, the inspector noted some code issues that were adequately addressed prior to the accident. None of these involved the stairs. The yearly inspections included items in the basement, requiring the inspector to go up and down the basement stairs. No problems with the stairs were brought to respondents' attention and no deficiencies were cited regarding the stairs.
On March 7, 2001, Stauffenecker fell down the basement stairs. Shortly thereafter, appellants had Alfred Berreau, an expert on the Uniform Building Code and building safety, inspect the subject stairs. Berreau opined that the stairs were not in compliance with applicable codes and/or were otherwise unsafe in several ways: (1) there were risers on the stairway with greater variance than that allowed by code and with inadequate tread width, (2) the handrail did not reach to the top of the stairs, (3) there was no light fixture within the stairway itself, and (4) there was not adequate headroom.
Appellants argued that respondents knew or should have known of these dangers. Additionally, appellants claimed that provisions in the written lease created responsibilities for respondents to inspect and maintain the premises. Appellants also claimed that respondents maintained control of the stairs such that respondents were liable, given the stairs' deficiencies at the time of the accident.
The district court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment. The court concluded that respondents did not have notice of the alleged hazard with the stairs, that the lease provisions did not create any liability, and that respondents did not retain sufficient control over the stairs to create liability. This appeal followed.
When reviewing the appeal of an order for summary judgment, this court determines whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990). A summary judgment motion is properly granted when the record indicates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993).
1. The courts have been reluctant to hold landlords liable for injuries tenants receive on the leased premises:
At common law, a landlord was not liable to a tenant for any damage caused by defective conditions existing at the time the premises were leased. Today, however, there are several recognized exceptions to this general rule: (1) where there is a hidden dangerous condition on the premises of which the landlord is aware but the tenant is not; * * * (3) where the premises are still in control of the landlord; and (4) where the landlord negligently repairs the premises.
Oakland v. Stenlund, 420 N.W.2d 248, 251 (Minn. App. 1988), review denied (Minn. Apr. 20, 1988).
Appellants concede that at the time of the accident the stairs were in the same condition as when they moved into the unit. They have not alleged a hidden defect, except perhaps as relates to the code violations cited after the accident. The supreme court has rejected the notion that a code violation, in and of itself, creates a hidden defect for purposes of potential landlord liability. Bills v. Willow Run I Apartments, 547 N.W.2d 693, 694-95 (Minn. 1996). Stauffenecker safely navigated the stairs many times and knew the condition of the stairs, including the risers' variance and lack of lighting. These do not constitute hidden defects.
Appellants maintain that respondents retained control of the stairs because they had a master key to enter the premises and used the key regularly, sometimes without prior approval. The case law interpreting this control exception indicates otherwise. The cases dealing with this exception to the general prohibition on landlord liability address accidents occurring on common areas adjoining the leasehold premises. See, e.g., Geislinger v. Village of Watkins, 269 Minn. 116, 125-26, 130 N.W.2d 62, 68 (1964); Hill v. Gaertner, 253 Minn. 457, 459, 92 N.W.2d 810, 812 (1958). The exception does not apply to areas wholly within the leased premises. Instead, a landlord is responsible for common or shared areas, such as hallways and stairs serving multiple tenants. These areas are not part of any one tenant's leasehold, and as such the landlord generally retains and exercises control. A landlord's liability may arise if the landlord fails to properly inspect and maintain these shared areas. See Geislinger, 269 Minn. at 125-26, 130 N.W.2d at 68.
Keeping a master key and entering the leased premises does not give rise to liability. As respondents point out, landlords often keep a master key and occasionally enter the leased premises. The exception would essentially negate the rule if appellants' interpretation were adopted. Instead, when an accident occurs in an area exclusively within the leased premises the general rule applies, and the landlord must have at least constructive notice of the hazard. See Bigos v. Kluender, 611 N.W.2d 816, 822 (Minn. App. 2000) (holding landlord did not have "control" for purposes of premises liability of tenant's balcony despite landlord's instructions to tenant regarding grilling on balcony), review denied (Minn. July 25, 2000). Thus, the "control" exception does not apply here.
Appellants also argue that, although the stairs were in the same condition at the time of the accident as when Sullivan took possession, the stairs were in a state of "disrepair." Appellants argue that the stairs were not safe and that respondents had an obligation to "repair" the stairs, even though appellants had at least equal knowledge regarding the condition of the stairs before and at the time of the accident. This is simply a misstatement of the law. See Oakland, 450 N.W.2d at 251 (landlord has no liability for condition existing when leased, absent hidden hazard of which landlord is aware and tenant is not). Even if the condition of the stairs constitutes a "hazard," the hazard existed at the time appellants took possession of the premises. The condition of the stairs was never hidden or concealed from appellants. There is no liability on the part of respondents for the condition of the stairs. Id.
2. Appellants argue that specific language in their lease creates liability. Appellants point to provisions stating that the landlord is responsible for keeping the premises in a state of repair and up to applicable codes. The lease language at issue is required by statute. See Minn. Stat. § 504B.161 (2002). This statutory language was devised to allow tenants a defense to a landlord's unlawful detainer actions when the landlord has allowed the leasehold premises to deteriorate to the point of being uninhabitable. The claim that this statutorily required language gives rise to a cause of action for injury on the leased premises, or otherwise expands the landlord's premises liability beyond that previously set forth in the case law, has been rejected:
The legislative objective in enacting the implied covenants of habitability is clearly to assure adequate and tenantable housing within the state. That objective is promoted by permitting breach of the statutory covenants to be asserted as a defense in unlawful detainer actions. * * * .
It seems clear that the legislature did not intend to alter a landlord's tort liability but only to require a landlord to covenant to keep leased premises in reasonable repair, fit for their intended use and maintained in compliance with applicable health and safety laws. * * * .
* * * *
* * * . But they [the statutory provisions] do not appear to extend liability of a landlord to money damages for injuries received by a tenant as a result of an unknown defect in the rented premises.
Meyer v. Parkin, 350 N.W.2d 435, 438 (Minn. App. 1984) (quotation omitted), review denied (Minn. Sept. 12, 1984).
Accordingly, the lease provisions involved here, part of a form lease from the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, do not create liability for respondents. Appellants' argument that respondents, by assuming an obligation under the lease to "repair" the "hazard" of the stairs, assumed or accepted liability for Stauffenecker's accident is simply an incorrect statement of the law.
3. Appellants maintain that the district court erred in dismissing their lawsuit despite their expert's opinion citing certain deficiencies relative to the building code. The supreme court has rejected the proposition that a violation of the building code existing on the lease premises constitutes negligence per se on the part of the landlord:
We now reverse [the court of appeals' ruling to the contrary], finding that common law landlord/tenant standards of liability apply. Thus, without notice of the violation and an opportunity to remedy, the landlord or owner is not negligent per se. We disagree with the court of appeals' decision that a UBC violation impliedly creates hidden or unanticipated dangers, thus somehow imputing knowledge to the landlord and owner.
Bills, 547 N.W.2d at 694. Instead, the landlord must have at least constructive knowledge of the code violation. Id. at 695. The district court noted the city of Plymouth had conducted many inspections of the lease premises and had never cited any code violations regarding the basement stairs. The court correctly concluded that respondents were not on notice of any code violation prior to the accident.
Respondents were not made aware of any building code deficiencies relative to the stairs before Stauffenecker's accident. They reasonably believed the stairs were up to code, considering that the inspectors used the stairs and never referenced any problems despite noting other inadequacies in the units. Donald Salmela was on the premises on numerous occasions, and he was asked about the lack of light in the stairway. But the absence of the light in the stairway is not itself a code violation. The code violations appellants have alleged deal with the variance in the risers on the stairway, inadequate tread width, and the failure of the handrail to reach to the top of the stairs. There is no evidence to suggest that respondents had actual notice of any code violations prior to the accident. As for constructive notice, these problems would not be obvious code violations about which respondents should have known. Additionally, the absence of a light and each of the other conditions appellants' expert cited existed at the time Sullivan moved in and throughout the lease term. Appellants have not established respondents' liability for Stauffenecker's accident. The district court's grant of summary judgment was proper.