Apartment electrical fire. Can tennant expect compensation from landlord
May 31, 2014 12:15 PM   Subscribe

My friend's apartment burnt along with most of his stuff. (He is 41.) Should he talk to a lawyer about getting a settlement from the landlord? More info below.

He doesn't know if the fire started in the wall, in his computer, the stove, etc. The official report said it started in the kitchen area. The fire commissioner said, "that's all the information you'll get from us." This happened a couple of months ago. The apartment is now gutted and he's fallen on hard times. He hasn't even gotten his deposit back.

I think he's afraid that the landlord might try to sue him for damage or something. ?!
It's my understanding that if the electrical system's breaker didn't trip, it's likely not his fault.
...But IANAL.
posted by uncoolcentral to Law & Government (10 answers total)
Further information that would be helpful: where is your friend located (tenant law varies from location to location)? Has he had any conversations with his landlord since the fire? Does he have a written lease, and if so, does it say anything about what happens if the premises are destroyed?
posted by scody at 12:23 PM on May 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I assume he did not have renter's insurance? That is a mistake that he should not make again.
posted by amro at 12:26 PM on May 31, 2014 [15 favorites]

This is a lawyer question. Answers would be specific to your state, and possibly even city. IMO it's beyond the purview of the sort of thing you can really get an answer for without asking an expert, and possibly paying them a bit for their time.

My extremely spitball answer is that you're not necessarily wrong for thinking this, as everywhere i've ever seen required the landlord/property owner to have insurance if they wanted to rent it out and get a certificate of occupancy/etc. Sometimes this JUST covers the structure. In my area, as i remember, it covers these sorts of situations in which the tenants property was destroyed by something relating to the landlords property(IE a pipe bursting, and especially stuff that would have to do with improper upkeep).

As i said though, this varies from place to place and you need to chat with an expert.
posted by emptythought at 12:37 PM on May 31, 2014

Response by poster: scody: friend is in Portland OR. He has (had) a written lease, no doubt destroyed in fire? He has conversed very little with the (former) landlord.

amro: Correct. No insurance. Common (dumb) mistake. I guess that's why they're called mistakes ;)

empythought: thanks for your spitball. I've been encouraging him to speak to an expert. He's reluctant. Maybe this thread will help nudge him.

Thanks all.

posted by uncoolcentral at 1:17 PM on May 31, 2014

Even if his own copy of the lease was destroyed in the fire, the landlord would have the original. Your friend should contact him (by writing, preferably) to request a copy.

He really has to speak with someone in person versed in the relevant law in Portland; there's no one here who be able to give him a definitive answer as to whether he's entitled to a settlement under these circumstances. Oregon's Community Alliance of Tenants would probably be a good place for him to start.
posted by scody at 1:51 PM on May 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

As someone who used to do residential apartment maintenance in California, the understanding I worked with was that the landlord is responsible for what happens outside the apartment, thee renter for what happens inside.

The landlord's insurance will probably cover their damages, so your buddy probably won't get used by the landlord. But I wouldn't expect to get the deposit back.

If there is a local tennant's union or similar organization, they'd probably have some good info that wouldn't require paying for 30 minutes of a lawyer's time.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 4:15 PM on May 31, 2014

I don't know of any municipality in the US where the landlord would be responsible for the loss, but the place to go for intell is definitely the Portland tenant's rights organization. They also may be able to help in other ways (e.g., where is he staying now?). I would contact the landlord PRONTO for other reasons as well, such as getting a copy of the lease to determine what it says about what happens to the lease in the case the apartment is no longer habitable. Your friend should get back his deposit as well, which should help a bit. If he hasn't contacted the landlord (it has been MONTHS?) perhaps the landlord isn't sure at what address to contact him.

Also, this is a good time and a good reminder to get renter's insurance (it is super cheap! Like two lattes a month cheap!) and itemize your belongings (all of y'all!).
posted by arnicae at 4:59 PM on May 31, 2014

I don't think that your friend should talk to a lawyer to get compensation for your friend's belongings. Unless there is provable negligence on the part of the landlord (or your landlord is an arsonist), there is effectively no way to get compensation for your friend's belongings. Even if you do believe the fire is not your friend's fault, to get compensation, your friend would have to be able to prove in court that the fire was the fault of the landlord. That's a hard burden to overcome, and your landlord will realize it. If the landlord knows they will win in court, they have no incentive to settle the case.

I think your friend should talk to a lawyer to ensure that the landlord doesn't come after your friend for destroying the apartment. Your statement of "if the electrical system's breaker didn't trip, it's likely not his fault" is... a bit inaccurate, and it's not clear to me your friend here has proved they are not liable for the fire. It helps your friend a lot that the fire department hasn't pointed the finger at your friend. However, since the fire department is saying the fire came from the kitchen, a landlord out to get the rather large cost of the apartment back (hint, that's every landlord) could make an argument that the fire was due to negligence on the part of your friend. Kitchen fires are easy to start (grease, attempts at flamb├ęd desserts, smoking indoors), after all.
posted by saeculorum at 5:56 PM on May 31, 2014

Response by poster: Great conversation. Thanks. I've made him aware of this thread.
posted by uncoolcentral at 6:47 PM on May 31, 2014

This is what renters insurance is for. Never rent without it!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:44 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

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