Mold in Rentals: Landlord Liability, Responsibility, and Prevention
Mold is a serious problem in a number of older homes. Not only can mold aggravate your tenant’s allergies, but it can decrease their quality of life, reduce their productivity at work, and even present serious health problems.
For landlords, no matter where you live in the U.S., it’s your responsibility to ensure that the place you are renting out is safe and habitable. All across the country, renters have won major personal injury lawsuits against their landlords in toxic mold exposure cases.
You can bet they’re going to go after you when their children start coming down with symptoms of mold exposure. Daily exposure to mold causes a condition called CIRS (Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome). Symptoms of the disorder include:
- Fatigue and weakness, especially after exertion
- Problems with memory, concentration, and decision making
- Disorientation and confusion
- Vertigo and a feeling of being lightheaded
- Muscle cramps and aches, joint pain
- Sensitivity to light, blurred vision, burning in the eyes, tearing
- Cough, sinus congestion, shortness of breath, asthma
- Gastrointestinal problems, nausea, diarrhea, cramping
The sheer volume and variation of symptoms make it difficult for doctors to diagnose the problem. Nonetheless, toxic mold exposure can take a serious toll on a person’s life, and landlords can be held liable if it does.
Toxic Mold Exposure and the Law
Most states do not have mold-specific laws on the books. Nonetheless, the statutes that govern premises liability and personal injury liability remain the standard by which such cases are judged. That means the role of negligence governs the question of liability.
In order for an individual to be guilty of negligence in a premises liability lawsuit, that person must be aware that the problem exists or should have been aware that the problem existed. In other words, negligence can be inferred circumstantially in some cases. When the issue is toxic mold exposure, it’s not incredibly difficult for landlords to be held liable for having allowed a toxic environment to fester.
For instance, a landlord should conduct a thorough inspection of the premises before a new tenant moves in. If a tenant moves in and begins to display signs of CIRS, they have every right to recover damages from the landlord.
In states that do have mold-specific laws on the books, the burden is redoubled on the landlord to ensure that the environment is safe for their tenants. That could mean forcing the landlord to conduct timely inspections to make negligence even easier to prove.
Defending Yourself against Mold Tort
How Do You Know it Was Mold that Caused Your Symptoms?
There is a considerable amount of debate in the scientific and medical community concerning what kinds of mold are potentially toxic. Suffice it to say, if your tenant comes to court with medical reports, a diagnosis of mold exposure, and toxicity reports on the mold itself, it’s going to be very difficult for you to prove otherwise.
You Can’t Sue Me, It’s in the Lease Agreement!
Some landlords believe that, as a condition of their lease, they can write in a clause that absolves them of liability. It’s hard to imagine, however, that any state in their right mind would actually let a landlord off the hook for renting out a toxic environment. It presents a danger to public health.
You Caused the Water Damage which Led to the Mold…
This is a valid defense. If the tenant’s own negligence led to the presence of mold, the landlord can successfully argue that they are not liable for the tenant’s symptoms. However, if the tenant made them aware of the water damage, that effectively passes the hot potato back to the landlord whose duty it now is to remove the mold, regardless of who caused it. The landlord is free to charge the tenant, under the lease agreement for damage to the property.
Prevention and Cleaning of Mold
Mold likes moisture. Homes in the more humid areas of the U.S. are much more likely to require mold maintenance than those in more arid climates. In addition, mold likes dank and dark places that see a lot of wetness and moisture. The landlord or their property manager should be on top of making whatever repairs are necessary to ensure that their property is habitable.
How do you do that?
Firstly, each time a tenant moves out, you should inspect likely areas for mold. While it may not be readily apparent that the mold is toxic, it’s not exceptionally difficult to clean up either. Mold can generally be cleaned with bleach. This works on smaller mold buildup jobs that you will find below sinks and the like.
So long as the mold doesn’t dig its way into the wood cabinets, you will not need to dump thousands of dollars into their replacement.
The Bottom Line
As a landlord, if your tenants get sick because of mold toxicity, there are very few instances in which a jury will not find in their favor. So long as they can prove that it is more likely than not that their symptoms were caused by mold exposure, the landlord will lose the case. That’s why it’s incredibly important to document the property in pictures before each tenant moves in.
The one reasonable defense a landlord has, in a well-prepared case, is that the tenant’s own actions resulted in their exposure to mold. Before and after pictures can make this case. Nonetheless, there are limitations to such a defense. For instance, you may still be liable if the tenant reports the mold damage to you and you don’t act on that information. As always, the laws will differ from state to state, but correcting mold damage immediately is never a bad idea.