SAN FRANCISCO — Ruling in the case of a woman who slipped in a Palm Springs hotel bathtub, the California Supreme Court on Monday overturned a controversial 1985 decision and reduced the liability of landlords for injuries that occur on their property.
By a vote of 7-0, the court discarded a hotly contested decision of the court under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and ruled that landlords should no longer be held responsible under product liability laws for defects on their property that cause injuries.
"We conclude that we erred [in 1985] in applying the doctrine of strict products liability to a residential landlord," the court ruled.
The court, while more conservative than in the Bird era, uncharacteristically issued a ruling much broader than the issue facing it: Although the case involved serious injury to a hotel guest, the court's ruling will extend to every rental property in the state.
The decision was hailed by representatives of the hotel industry and by apartment owners who have long chafed under a liability standard they argued was unfairly strict.
"I believe it's a triumph of pragmatism and common sense," said attorney Paul E. B. Glad, who argued the case on behalf of the Palm Springs Marquis Hotel. "The concept that a person will not encounter liability so long as they act reasonably is fundamental to the ordinary person's perspective of justice and fairness."
Injured tenants, the Supreme Court noted, can still seek damages from landlords who are negligent. They also can sue manufacturers and distributors of defective products--such as slippery bathtubs--under product liability laws, the court said.
"The conclusion we reach by no means absolves hotel proprietors or landlords of all potential responsibility for such injuries; on the contrary, hotel proprietors and landlords still may be held liable under general tort principles for defects in their premises if they have breached the applicable standard of care," said the opinion written by Justice Ronald M. George.
The court's decision appears to culminate a 30-year evolution of product liability standards in California.
Beginning in the 1960s and '70s, California became the first state to hold manufacturers, and then distributors, strictly liable for defects in their products. Every other state soon followed suit.
In 1985, ruling in the case of a man who was badly cut when the shower door in his apartment shattered, the Bird court extended the strict product liability standard to landlords.
But the decision, which became known as the Becker case, was widely criticized as anti-business and was used during the successful campaign to oust Bird and two other liberal members of the court in 1986. No other states followed California's lead by extending product liability standards to landlords.
Two justices who had dissented in the Becker case, Stanley Mosk and Malcolm Lucas--now the chief justice--joined in Monday's unanimous opinion.
The most recent case was brought by Nadine L. Peterson, who suffered serious head injuries when she slipped in a tub at the Palm Springs Marquis Hotel. Her attorneys argued that the court should extend the Becker standard of strict product liability to hotels, just as it applied to landlords.
But Glad, the hotel's attorney, argued that strict product liability should not extend to hotels because they are not part of the chain of manufacture and distribution. Moreover, he urged the court to overturn Becker entirely because of its fundamental unfairness to landlords.
The court agreed, surprising even representatives of the apartment industry, who had not joined in the case to overturn the Becker standard.
"We weren't even aware of this one," said Thomas K. Bannon, a lobbyist for the California Apartment Assn. "We are pleasantly surprised."
In their 34-page opinion, the justices noted that it was rare for the court to reverse itself but had concluded upon re-examining the Becker case that the earlier ruling was erroneous.
"We conclude that the decision . . . was incorrect in holding that a landlord is strictly liable on the basis of products liability for injuries to a tenant caused by a defect in a leased dwelling," the court ruled.
"Accordingly, we . . . hold that neither landlords nor hotel proprietors are strictly liable on a products liability theory for injuries to their respective tenants and guests caused by a defect on the premises."
The court noted that courts in other states that had considered the arguments for imposing strict product liability standards on landlords had all rejected the idea.
"This decision returns California to the mainstream," Glad said, "and responds to criticism that the Becker case had placed an unfair burden upon landlords."