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Landlord/Tenant – Tort/Negligence – Lack of Inspection – Natural Gas Explosion

Where the defendant-landlord did not inspect the pipes in his rental house’s crawlspace before the plaintiff-tenant moved in in 2006, nor at any time during the tenancy, it is for a jury to decide whether the landlord was negligent in failing to discover that leaky plumbing had corroded a natural gas pipeline, leading to the 2017 explosion that caused severe and permanent injuries to the tenant.

We reverse summary judgment for the landlord.

There was evidence that the landlord had constructive notice of the alleged hazardous condition and was negligent in failing to warn of or repair the condition. In addition to the landlord’s failure to inspect, there was evidence that, in 2016, the landlord saw debris in the tenant’s backyard and became upset at how the property was being maintained. However, despite his concerns, the landlord did not conduct inspections of any other portions of the property to make sure they were being appropriately maintained.

Our holding here is not that there is a blanket duty to inspect the living quarters or crawlspace of a tenant. Rather, we are merely reaffirming the existing and repeatedly recognized common law duty that landlords must use reasonable care in the inspection and maintenance of leased property. In this matter, there remains a question of fact for the jury as to whether the landlord’s choice to not inspect any part of the rental property, including the natural gas heating system, or provide any regular maintenance of the natural gas heating system and related pipes was reasonable care.

Just as the evidence in the record creates a question of fact about whether the landlord’s actions constituted reasonable care, that same evidence presents a jury issue about whether the landlord did “whatever necessary” to maintain the premises in a fit and habitable condition within the meaning of the Residential Rental Agreement Act (RRAA).

In addition, the Housing Code of the City of Durham is a public safety statute, a violation of which would establish negligence per se. The landlord cites Olympic Prods. Co. v. Roof Sys., 88 N.C. App. 315, 363 S.E.2d 367 (1988), in support of his contention that he may not be found negligent per se for a violation of the Housing Code in the absence of the tenant notifying him of a defect.

In Olympic Products, the code at issue was the North Carolina Building Code, not a city housing code. Our Supreme Court has enumerated specific conditions that must be satisfied for a building owner to be found negligent per se for a violation of the state Building Code. We decline to extend these requirements to negligence per se in the context of a municipal housing code.

The RRAA provides an affirmative cause of action to a tenant for recovery of rent due to a landlord’s breach of the implied warrant of habitability. While G.S. § 42-42(a)(4) requires written notification of defects, we have held that such written notification is not required if the repairs are necessary to put the premises in fit and habitable condition. The question of whether the conditions requiring repairs render the premises in an unfit and uninhabitable condition is a question of fact for the jury, and therefore is inappropriate for disposition through summary judgment.

It is a question for the jury as to whether the landlord’s failure, over the course of 11 years, to exercise the right to inspect that he gave to himself in his lease with the tenant was reasonable and in compliance with our statutory and common law framework for maintenance of rental properties.

Reversed and remanded.

Dissent

(Carpenter, J.) The tenant provides no factual basis as to why the landlord would have known of the leak, nor did the tenant establish that the landlord was under a duty to inspect the property. Furthermore, the tenant failed to show he complied with the RRAA by providing the landlord with written notice of the needed repairs.

The conditions imposed by our Supreme Court on liability for state building code violations should be extended to liability for municipal housing code violations. Here, the landlord cannot be found liable for negligence per se because the notice condition was not satisfied.

Although written notification is not required for needed repairs if the repairs are necessary to put the premises in a fit and habitable condition, this does not obviate the requirement that a tenant give notice to the landlord of the repair that is needed to put the premises in a fit and habitable condition.

The landlord cannot be liable for repairs when he had no knowledge they were needed.

Terry v. Public Service Co. of North Carolina (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-239-22, 37 pp.) (Darren Jackson, J.) (Jeffery Carpenter, J., dissenting) Appealed from Durham County Superior Court (Orlando Hudson, J.) Steven Epstein and Michael Malone for plaintiff; Robert Levin for defendant. 2022-NCCOA-913


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