Tenant’s Oil Leak

My elderly disabled tenant’s car is leaking oil and I am concerned that someone could slip and fall. I have sent a letter telling the tenant to clean up the oil, but so far she has not done so. What do I do now? Am I liable if someone falls?

Once again, the answer depends on how well worded your rental agreement is with this tenant. Some leases are silent about a tenant’s responsibility to maintain the parking stall. Others, like the SFAA’s 2012 version, hold the tenant accountable for oil leaks. Specifically, the SFAA lease states that,

“In order to preserve the appearance and cleanliness of the Building, Tenant shall take care to prevent waste from dropping or spilling on carpeting, concrete, walkways and/or other common areas.”

The SFAA lease further requires tenants to keep the parking spaces free from oil. Such covenants allow the owner to compel a tenant to keep the parking space clean by, if necessary, serving the tenant with a notice requiring lease compliance within three days, with a failure to do so causing termination and forfeiture of the tenancy. The fact that the tenant is elderly and/or disabled makes no difference. If there is a breach of an important lease covenant, the breach needs to be rectified.

If the lease is silent or vague on this issue, continue sending the tenant letters asking her to rectify the situation by repairing the car so that it no longer leaks. If these warnings are ignored, you may be able to seek termination of the tenancy on the ground that the tenant is creating a substantial interference with the safety of other tenants in the building, as oil is a serious slipping hazard.

Hopefully, eviction will not become necessary. Keep warning the tenant in writing about this problem. Perhaps the tenant has a family member or friend who is willing to help. Exhaust all possible non-eviction routes, as undoubtedly this person is seemingly unable to comply.

Yet ultimately you may have to take action if the problem persists. Obviously, oil presents a major slip and fall trap. The landlord is definitely liable should someone fall and become injured. Most likely, the building’s general liability insurance coverage should come into play under these circumstances, but the owner is still stuck with the premium cost, increased rates, and the hassle of going to court; in addition, a very serious injury could exceed the policy limits and thereby expose the owner’s personal assets.

Thus, remain persistent with your efforts to warn the tenant, and perhaps try to enlist the help of a friend or care taker. If these efforts fail, you may have to issue a formal three-day notice and/or notice to terminate tenancy, as you cannot allow a tripping hazard to permanently exist in your building. Finally, this question should remind all owners to regularly re-visit their insurance coverage to ensure that they maintain sufficient protection for personal injury and other claims.

DW

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