Daily Development for Monday, September 21, 2009
by: Patrick A. Randolph, Jr.
Elmer F. Pierson Professor of Law
UMKC School of Law
Of Counsel: Husch Blackwell Sanders
Kansas City, Missouri

LANDLORD/TENANT; RESIDENTIAL; RETALIATORY EVICTION: Retaliatory eviction doctrine does not prevent landlord from terminating lease because tenant brought action to recover damages for personal injury. Helfrich v. Valdez Motel Corp., 207 P.3d 552 (Alaska 2009).

A motel employee rented a room at the Pipeline Inn where he worked on a month-to-month basis. After work one day he slipped and fell on the property, breaking his leg. Tenant remained living and working on the premises on a part time basis.  The tenant attempted to negotiate a settlement whereby the motel would pay the tenant's medical expenses. Then the motel terminated his employment and sent him a letter terminating the tenancy.

The tenant sued, asserting negligence and retaliatory eviction under the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA). The URLTA prohibits a landlord from retaliating against a tenant "by increasing rent or decreasing services or by bringing or threatening to bring an action for possession after the tenant has...sought to enforce rights and remedies granted the tenant" under the URLTA. Alaska Stat. 34.03.310(a).

The trial court granted a directed verdict for the motel on the retaliatory eviction claim, and the landlord prevailed with a jury verdict on the negligence claim.

The supreme court affirmed, reasoning that the tenant's right to seek damages for personal injury was not granted by the URLTA, but arose under tort law. Two justices dissented, focusing on the URLTA requirement that the landlord "keep all common areas of the premises in a clean and safe condition." For reasons of public policy, they argued, tenants should not risk losing their home if they seek compensation because of injuries caused by unsafe conditions on the premises.

Reporter’s Comment:  Some language in the majority opinion suggests that the tenant could have prevailed if his attorney had framed the issue in terms of habitability and common area maintenance, rather than only in the vocabulary of tort law.

This item is reprinted (as edited) from Probate & Property, September/October 2009, Vol. 23 No. 5, published by the Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section of the American Bar Association.  The Reporter was Professor Jim Smith of the University of Georgia Law School.

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