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Negligence Key Issue in Termite Case


QUESTION: I have been living in a West Los Angeles apartment for the last 20 years. About 10 years ago, termites suddenly appeared in my dining area near the terrace door. I informed the manager and he called an exterminator, who sprayed the area.

The next year termites invaded my bedroom. Again, the exterminator came out and sprayed the area. At my insistence he went a step further and drilled some holes, which he filled with some kind of pest control substance.

The owner refuses to tent the building or take more aggressive action to solve the problem. Instead, he has accused my cleaning person of causing the problem, told me that termites fly in from nearby shrubs (I live on the top floor) and accused me of bringing them in when I moved.

Now I have termites in my furniture. When I called the landlord about it, he said it was my own fault because my furniture is very old. That is not a satisfactory answer in my book.

Because the landlord never really resolved this problem, is he responsible for the damage to my furniture? Where do I go from here?

ANSWER: Although courts have held landlords liable for damage to tenants' property resulting from negligence, that doesn't appear to apply here.

According to Trevor Grimm, general counsel to the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, "There probably is no way to link the termites you saw in the apartment with the termites in your furniture."

Here's why. Your letter says that you first had termites in the apartment 10 years ago. Then you had them again, about a year later. Now, nine years later, you have them again, this time in your furniture. That's a long time between termites.

Your letter doesn't say whether these pests are infesting the apartment again, in addition to pestering your furniture, so I assume that they are not.

Nevertheless, when they were present in the apartment, your landlord took steps to eliminate them, and he was successful for at least the last nine years. Taking reasonable steps to cure a problem, like your landlord did, takes away the negligence argument.

Safety, Not Beauty Is Landlord's Duty

Q: We have lived in our furnished Los Angeles apartment for the last 24 years, since 1971. We never had any drapes in the apartment until we bought our own. The carpet was worn when we moved in, and we replaced it. The unit has not been painted since we moved in.

Each year the landlord promised that he would take care of these things, but he never did. I don't understand why, after 20-plus years, we aren't entitled to new carpet, drapes and paint. Can you tell me? Also, why do we have to pay $7 to the City of Los Angeles each year for rent control registration?

A: State law requires landlords to maintain rental units in habitable condition. That includes things like plumbing that plumbs, roofs that don't leak, heaters that heat and the like. It does not require landlords to maintain units in aesthetically pleasing condition.

Paint, carpets and drapes are, in general, aesthetic amenities, although carpets must be maintained in at least a safe condition.

For instance, a torn carpet represents a safety hazard (one could trip because of the tear). It must, at a minimum, be repaired. The law still does not require replacement if the carpet cannot be repaired, because removal also solves the safety problem.

Of course, under the L.A. City rent control law, if a landlord diminishes a service, like removing carpets, he also may have to reduce the rent.

Your letter says that, "Each year the landlord promised that he would take care of these things, but he never did."

I assume that those were verbal promises or you already would have taken him to Small Claims Court to enforce a written agreement.

You still may sue the landlord in Small Claims Court based upon verbal promises, but the burden of proof is far more difficult when there is nothing in writing. That's one of the reasons I always recommend that you get everything in writing in landlord/tenant relationships.

Second, since you did not pay anything for the landlord's "promise" to take care of these things, he is legally under no contractual obligation to provide them.

Also, you may have waived your right to enforce a contract, written or verbal, by doing nothing to enforce it, particularly if it were promised 20 times (once a year).

As for why you have to pay an annual $7 rent control registration fee, I can only tell you that the money is used to fund the administration of the L.A. City Rent Control law.

Postema is the editor of Apartment Age magazine, a publication of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, an apartment owners' service group. Mail your questions on any aspect of apartment living to AAGLA, 12012 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.

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