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    The Lawletter Blog

    PROPERTY: Landlord Liability for Wrongful Death

    Posted by D. Bradley Pettit on Fri, Dec 18, 2020 @ 11:12 AM

    The Lawletter Vol 45 No 6

    Brad Pettit—Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

                In a very recent ruling that was consistent with prior Virginia state court decisions that favor residential landlords in cases involving personal injury suits by tenants against landlords, a federal district court sitting in Virginia dismissed wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED") actions by the plaintiff, a mobile home owner, against a mobile home park lot owner that arose when a decaying tree fell on the plaintiff's mobile home and crushed her son to death. Darlington v. Harbour E. Vill. LLC, No. 3:20cv157-HEH, 2020 WL 3979664 (E.D. Va. July 14, 2020) (slip copy) (only the Westlaw citation is currently available), appeal filed (4th Cir. Aug. 11, 2020). Even though there was evidence that prior residents in the mobile home park had warned the lot owner at least three times about the decaying tree and the dangers that it posed, the Darlington court ruled that, in the absence of a statutory or common-law duty on the part of the mobile home park lot owner/lessor to the mobile homeowner/lot lessee to maintain a safe condition of the lot, the plaintiff could not bring a wrongful death claim against the lot lessor:

                Without more, the parties' landlord-tenant relationship alone will not suffice to establish a common law duty. Not only was this relationship premised upon a contract, the Agreement, but the relationship itself also cedes many responsibilities to the tenant. See Paytan v. Rowland, 155 S.E.2d 36, 37 (Va. 1967) ("[A landlord has] no duty to maintain in a safe condition any part of the leased premises that [is] under [a tenant's] exclusive control."). The terms of the Agreement suggest that the landscape, which included the trees, was a part of the leased premises under Darlington's exclusive control. (See Agreement at 3 ("Tenant shall maintain and cut the lawn and maintain the landscape, plants and trees, except that such plants or trees shall not be removed or disturbed without the prior written consent of [Defendant].").)

    Id. at *5.

                In dismissing the plaintiff's wrongful death claim, the Darlington court also relied on a 2007 Virginia Supreme Court decision in which it was held that in enacting the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act,

    the General Assembly did not plainly manifest an intention, either through express language or by necessary implication, to abrogate the common law and make a landlord liable in tort for a tenant's personal injuries sustained on leased premises within the tenant's control and possession as a result of the landlord's breach of duties imposed by the Act. Instead, the Act provides a comprehensive scheme of landlords' and tenants' contractual rights and remedies.

    Id. at *6 (quoting Isbell v. Comm'l Inv. Assocs., Inc., 273 Va. 605, 618, 644 S.E.2d 72, 78 (2007)).

                As to the plaintiff's IIED claim against the mobile home park lot owner, the Darlington court ruled that, where the parties' relationship is contractual only, "[l]iability [for IIED] has been found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community." Id. at *7 (quoting Russo v. White, 241 Va. 23, 27, 400 S.E.2d 160, 162 (1991), which discusses the tort of "outrage").

                Since the plaintiff in Darlington filed an appeal of the district court's adverse ruling, it will be interesting to see whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit continues to follow the Virginia state court decisions that are landlord-favorable in cases involving personal injury or wrongful death claims by tenants against their landlords.

    Topics: wrongful death, property, landlord liability, D. Bradley Pettit, statutory or common-law law duty, IIED claim

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