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Rental Roundtable

Flood Unleashes Debate on Responsibility

July 22, 2001|ROBERT GRISWOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: Recently, we awoke in the night to find that our apartment was flooded from a leak in the toilet tank. We hurriedly removed as much furniture as we could and contacted the management. The carpet had to be removed and fans set up to dry out the apartment.

Before the apartment and carpeting were completely dry, the manager insisted that our furniture be moved back into our unit because the weekend was approaching, the maintenance staff doesn't work on weekends and the owner refused to pay overtime. The unit was uninhabitable and we were forced to stay in a motel. The owner refuses to reimburse us for our lodging and meal expenses.

Can they do this?

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Attorney Steven R. Kellman replies: The landlord is probably responsible for the leak in the toilet tank unless it can be shown that you caused the problem by misuse or abuse. You acted correctly by immediately contacting the landlord and taking measures to protect your furniture.

The landlord, however, did not handle the matter well. Flooding can not be ignored even if it occurs at inconvenient times. The damage from a flood is just as bad on a Monday morning as it is on a Saturday night. The damage can be made worse by failing to promptly take corrective measures.

The mere fact that the flood was before a weekend is no excuse to make the matter worse by a conscious failure to act just to save money. Even if the flooding was not the fault of the landlord (for example, a hidden defect in the plumbing), failing to act properly can cause additional damage, for which the landlord should be held responsible.

Waiting until Monday to finish taking care of the matter because the staff doesn't work on weekends is unreasonable.

Though your landlord may or may not be responsible for the initial flooding, he should be held liable for all the inconvenience and expenses caused by delaying corrective action until after the weekend.

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Attorney Ted Smith replies: I believe the landlord acted reasonably under the circumstances. First, we don't even know that the landlord is legally liable for the flood. Some losses--maybe this flood--cannot be pinned on the landlord. Renters must take responsibility for their flood damages; that's why renter's insurance is encouraged. If the landlord is responsible, it's my opinion that he is required to give credit only for unearned rent during the flood period. Asking the landlord to reimburse you for your hotel bills and meals is more than the court would allow.

Security Deposit Is Hung Up Out of State

Q: We moved to here after the expiration of our second six-month lease in Alabama. We were told that we would have the deposit posted (mailed) to us soon after we left.

Despite two letters to the apartment complex (owned by a big company), we have received neither deposit nor explanation. We have also tried to call, but we usually get an answering machine and there have been no return calls.

What do we do next?

Smith replies: Landlord-tenant law varies from state to state, but most laws are fairly consistent when it comes to security deposits.

You should have received a notice about the deductions from your deposit. The company was less than honest with you about the deposit being mailed.

You will need to file a Small Claims Court action in Alabama. Maybe you can have a friend file the paperwork for you and appear as your agent. You'll be able to get a judgment and the company will be forced to pay the money it owes.

If you would like the company investigated for this problem, you may want to call the consumer fraud unit at the local district attorney's office in Alabama.

Who Should Pay to Cover Bad Paint?

Q: I am a long-term renter. When my apartment was repainted about 51/2 years ago, the painter made a complete mess of my unit and failed to properly prepare the walls for painting. So the paint chips or peels every time a wall, door, etc. is bumped. Also, he didn't paint completely behind the toilet, just where it was convenient to reach. Since the new paint is white and the old paint was off-yellow, it shows a lot. Can the landlord charge me for repainting?

Smith replies: The landlord can charge you for any damages, cleaning and refurbishing above ordinary wear and tear. If the painter botched the paint job when you first moved in, then you are not responsible.

You'd better take a closer look at all of the walls. Make sure there are no nail holes, smudging, stains and deep scratches. If there are, the landlord would be within his legal rights to charge you for a pro-rated portion of the spackling and painting. Despite the long stay, these charges would be deductible from your deposit.

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If you have a question, send it to Rental Roundtable, Real Estate section, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012. Or you may e-mail them at rgriswold.latimes@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and to the point and cannot be answered individually.

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