Tenant turned off heat and pipes froze and burst - who is responsible?
January 9, 2005 1:47 PM   Subscribe

I live in a 3-unit apartment building in Chicago and left for a 2-week period during the Christmas/New Year's holiday. Before I left, I turned the heat off and one of the water pipes burst due to the cold weather. Anyone know what my responsibility is regarding paying for damages? There is no stipulation in my lease that says I have to keep the heat on during the wintertime. The damage was to a "common area" storage room that belonged to my upstairs neighbor. He wants me to pay for his insurance deductible.
posted by buddha9090 to Home & Garden (24 answers total)
First off, I would make sure that you and your neighbor both work this out with your landlord and not with each other directly to the extent that you can, unless you're feeling particularly generous. My loose non-lawyerly understanding is that if you're required to keep the apartment heated to a certain level, that needs to be in your lease. The opposing argument is, of course, that there is a common sense notion of keeping at least minimal heat on during the winter to avoid things like your own pipes freezing. Since the pipe that burst was not in only your space, that further complicates matters. You probably want to start with these pamphlets specifically noting the one on heating and the one on tenant responsibilities. Neither one has a full answer but both can give you some guidelines about what the baseline expectations are in Chicago and, most importantly, who to contact for more information. That said, there's legal responsibility and ethical responsibility and keep in mind that your responsibility in those two areas in a case like this may be different.
posted by jessamyn at 2:04 PM on January 9, 2005

IANAL. And I don't much like them, particularly when simple common sense would resolve a problem.

Seems to me that your neighbour certainly can't be faulted for the pipes bursting. Seems to me that your actions are directly responsible for it happening. Seems rather sensible to not turn one's heat off in the middle of winter in Chicago. It gets bloody cold there and interior things are bound to freeze.

I can not think of any possible way to spin this so that it becomes the neighbour's responsibility to be out of pocket for a mistake you made.

So my commonsense approach would seem to indicate that it'd be properly neighbourly, responsible, and right to pay up the insurance premium.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:15 PM on January 9, 2005

i don't understand what's happened here. you say where the damage was, but not where the pipe was. i'd expect the pipe itself to be in a wall or ceiling/floor space that you share, since it was your lack of heating that let it freeze. but that doesn't seem consistent with damage to an area above you (water runs down!).

so maybe there's some weird stuff going on.

but otherwise - what were you thinking? are you new to cold areas, or is this your first place? it's basic housekeeping to be aware of this problem, in my experience, and it sounds (with the proviso above) like you screwed up. i don't know what the legal issues are, and, as i've said, maybe it's more complicated than normal, but if the person above me let pipes freeze, leading to damage of something of mine, i'd expect them to pay. if it is that simple, your neighbour is being perfectly reasonable, in my opinion.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:19 PM on January 9, 2005

Remember, if you do pay it could be an inadvertent claim to responsibility which might end up being a big exposure in the long run.
posted by sled at 2:21 PM on January 9, 2005

I agree with 5freshfish and jessamyn. I think that you should consider yourself morally responsible for paying for at least your neighbor's part of this mishap. Perhaps even the pipe repair. I lived in Chicago for many many years and it was drummed into our heads to keep the heat on and even to keep a trickle of water flowing during the really cold spells in order to avoid pipes bursting. That was really a lapse in judgement. You may or may not be legally responsible, but again, in my opinion, you are morally obligated.

How much is the deductible?
posted by sic at 2:24 PM on January 9, 2005

I'd have to disagree with fff. Nothing in this case is your fault because you have done nothing wrong. Turning off the heat if you're going on vacation is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. You cannot be said to be negligent in any way--at best, you didn't think through your action three weeks into the future but this is hardly a crime. (If anything it's your landlord's fault. A responsible landlord would've been hip to this possibility and during a particularly cold winter should've contacted you about the possibility of pipes freezing and bursting.) Still, he's your neighbor. Tell him you're not comfortable paying 100% of the deductible (I certainly wouldn't pay 100%) but would be willing to toss in, say, 30% and you'd like to figure out a way to ensure this won't happen again.
posted by nixerman at 2:25 PM on January 9, 2005

Thanks for the responses - I'm not trying to get out of this by any means, but am trying to gauge the level of responsibility we have. My roommates and I are comfortable paying for the damage caused to the pipes, the drywall, and to some extent, our neighbor's storage, but are trying to get a sense to what extent we're liable for any future damages.

(By the way, I am new to cold areas, did this before last year and had not problems when I left for Xmas, and also talked to my landlord before leaving and asked if there was anything that needed to be done before we left and he didn't mention anything.)

From discussions with our landlord, it seems that it's not clear that our one unit turning off the heat in a multi-unit house is the sole cause of the pipes freezing. Common sense wise, it's likely that that was a huge contributing factor to the pipes freezing, so we're obviously going to pay some money. My upstairs neighbor is a jerk in general, and he's made vague allusions to the extent of damages going past the deductible. I'm worried that if we pay the deductible entirely we're taking 100% responsibility which may open us up to future liability later on.
posted by buddha9090 at 2:28 PM on January 9, 2005

Why is the jerk upstairs muttering about the deductible at all? Isn't that the landlord's problem?

Sounds like you and the landlord are both being pretty reasonable. Why even deal with the jerk? If he brings it up, refer him to the landlord.
posted by vetiver at 2:35 PM on January 9, 2005

I disagree with most of the other posters. I don't think you should be obligated (morally or otherwise) to pay for the damages. Renters are usually responsible for "walls-in" space, meaning that anything beyond the surface of the sheetrock (or brick, or whatever it is you've got) is the landlord's responsibility to maintain. If the pipes are susceptible to freezing, why should the burden be on YOU to ensure that they don't?

Looking at it another way, heating the apartment costs money. Why is it your responsibility to bear the costs of maintaining common infrastructure beyond your monthly rental payment?
posted by aberrant at 2:35 PM on January 9, 2005

Exactly, aberrant. If the neighbor is going to thrust this upon you, you should bill him retroactively for heating his storage unit.

And it is your landlord's problem, ethically.
posted by trharlan at 2:43 PM on January 9, 2005

errr... yeah you're responsible for walls-in, but if your stupid actions break something inside the walls then its your fault.
posted by nathan_teske at 7:16 PM on January 9, 2005

The guy upstairs wants you to pay the deductible on the claim he made to the insurance company for replacement of his damaged property, right?

As much as I think that it was a huge mistake to turn off the heat in the apartment, I don't think you are obligated (legally) to pay for the deductible. The whole point of the insurance is to replace items that are destroyed by accident/theft. When you get insurance you decide how high you want the deductible to be based on how valuable the items are to you. You don't agree to a deductible based on the assumption some one else will cover it.

On another note, I'd read the lease very carefully. I'm a bit surprised it doesn't cover heat in the winter.
posted by achmorrison at 7:33 PM on January 9, 2005

IANAL but, If you are worried about the liability that paying the full deductable might imply, just do what corporate executives do when they pay fines: ask everyone to sign a statement that assets that while "buddha9090 and roommates agree to pay $XXX in damages but buddha9090 and roommates deny any wrongdoing. All parties that sign this document agree to release buddha9090 from any liability in the pipe-bursting incident upon landlord's receipt of funds."

If you are talking about ~$300 of damages, a note signed and copied by all should be enough. If you are talking about $1k+ of damages, you may want to hire a lawyer to draft a more comprehensive document (considering that a lawyer will probably want $100-$500 to draft a simple document like this, you want the cost of the lawer to be small compared to the total payout. Essentially you are buying legal liability insurance by hiring the lawyer, though it isn't foolproof).

Also, what everyone else said about your responsibility. A good neighbor takes responsibility for his/her own actions. But a bad neighbor will take advantage of anyone. Be responsible, but don't take more than your fair share of responsibility.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:00 PM on January 9, 2005

Not a lawyer, but in my building, it's been made very clear to us that if we leave our windows open or our thermostats set below 80 and the pipes burst, we will be held responsible for any damages. Your mileage may vary.
posted by drezdn at 8:43 PM on January 9, 2005

set below 80

Jeez - are you all wandering about nekkid? I find anything over 70 to be stifling ...
posted by carter at 9:08 PM on January 9, 2005

I was looking from a condo-living sort of experience, mind you. That's a different candle of wax.

If I were renting, there's no way in hell I'm responsible for the pipes freezing if the heat goes off. That's entirely a problem for the landlord, unless there has been some very clear communication about the problem and responsibilities.

Anything the landlord's insurance didn't cover for my neighbour, I would.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:14 PM on January 9, 2005

If it were me, it never would have occurred to me to leave the heat on during the winter when I wasn't there.

I'm not "new to cold areas," but I would be new to having a dwelling in a cold area which I would then vacate for weeks or months at a time. Before reading this thread, I didn't know this problem even existed. In a case like drezdn's, at least it might be argued that you knew the rules, but otherwise I can't imagine feeling obligated to give up a cent to your neighbor. As far as his damages go, they're not his fault either. The landlord should pay for everything.
posted by bingo at 9:20 PM on January 9, 2005

Jeez - are you all wandering about nekkid? I find anything over 70 to be stifling ...

I think the thermostat in this instance has little bearing on the actual temp in the apartment which seems to fluctuate between 60 and 75ish.
posted by drezdn at 9:52 PM on January 9, 2005

I'm very surprised this isn't in your lease — it's in mine, and I live in coastal North Carolina where the temperature yesterday was in the high 70s.

That having been said, your neighbour really shouldn't be dealing with you, he should be dealing with the landlord, and the landlord should be bringing it up with you. There's no reason for you to have contact with him directly about this. I do think you probably have a certain responsibility, but then I grew up in upstate New York where keeping the pipes from freezing was the sort of thing you had drummed into you from childhood. OTOH, it's a moral and probably not a legal responsibility — and the fact that you particularly asked your landlord what to do when you left weighs heavily in your favor. I'd tell your neighbour to go fuck himself and wait to hear from your landlord if he thinks it's worth bringing up with you (unless, of course, the amount in question is something you can afford without any problem, in which case it's probably worth it to avoid neighbours that hate your guts).
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:18 PM on January 9, 2005

I'm finding it extremely surprising that leaving the heat off in a multi-unit building would cause the pipes to burst. Before I paid anything, I'd be really bloody suspicious that there wasn't more going on that caused the problem. Buildings are not generally independently plumbed, or heated for that matter. While you were away, presumably other people in the building were heating their spaces, and running their water. That should have been enough to keep the pipes from freezing up.

How did your landlord and co-tenants come to decide that this incident was your fault, exactly?
posted by jacquilynne at 10:18 PM on January 9, 2005

Re: multi-family units: The pipes in multi-family units are generally done in 'stacks'. That means that the upstairs and downstairs neighbors in one 'stack' all share sewer and cold-water feed pipes. (Unless cold water is separately metered, but this is very rare.)

My question is: Was the common storage area above or below or to the side of your unit? If it was above, I'd really question that the pipes freezing was your fault. Where, specifically was the pipe that burst?
I know that in my apartment community here in Oregon, some buildings were retrofitted with washers and dryers in a separate closet. The pipes for these were, intelligently enough, run through the attic space. Last year, we had a very deep freeze that lasted almost a week, and half of the units that had been retrofitted had the pipes in the attic burst, because they were in an unheated, uninsulated space. This year, we have to run water from a spliced-on hose fitting at the laundry machine hose any time it freezes, or we're liable for damages.

Those who aren't sure that it's an unspoken tenant's responsibility to leave the heat up... You must not live in an area where it gets Cold like it does in Chicago. That was always my understanding when my family lived there - you never let the apartment get below 50 degrees, and if it did or it was in the teens outside, you made sure that the water was running at least in a dribble at every faucet.
posted by SpecialK at 11:26 PM on January 9, 2005


I know you want to "do the right thing" by this, but you need to act like a legal entity in this situation, not a good samaritan. If there's any doubt about fault (which seems pretty clear), you need to direct this issue to your landlord, and then back off. Think of it this way:

- Take it on yourself. Best-case= you pay for your own fault. Worst-case= you pay for someone else's fault.
- Pass to landlord. Best-case= you pay nothing. Worst-case= you pay for your own fault.

OK, WORST case is that your landlord is a shady crook, but you get the idea...
posted by mkultra at 8:36 AM on January 10, 2005

Look it up in your lease and if it's not there the building must pay. Period. I would have turned my heat off too.
posted by xammerboy at 9:09 AM on January 10, 2005

Echoing (some) others: I'd say that in a multi-unit rental building, problems like this are the landlord's responsibility.
posted by sad_otter at 9:15 AM on January 10, 2005

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