A just released Virginia Supreme Court decision will further Virginia’s reputation as a landlord-friendly jurisdiction. In the case, Steward v. Holland Family Properties, LLC, the state’s highest court upheld a lower court ruling that a landlord was not liable for severe injuries to a child of tenants who rented a single-family home. The child had ingested lead from peeling lead paint in the home.
The landlord had informed the tenants of the possibility of lead in the house prior to their signing of the lease and the tenants themselves acknowledged that paint was obviously peeling from the house’s walls. These facts alone might have justified dismissal of the lawsuit. But the Court did not base its opinion on the particular circumstances of the case.
The basis of the Court’s ruling was that, in Virginia, a landlord has no duty, at least under tort law, to provide its tenants with a safe residence, either under the traditional common law rules or under the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. This is despite the fact that the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act requires landlords to follow “building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety” and the fact that the lease to the property in this case had assured the renters that “the Property shall comply with the requirements of building and housing codes materially affecting health and safety and applicable to the Property.”
According to the Virginia Supreme Court, the language in the Landlord and Tenant Act and the lease created merely contractual rights, not the right to sue for the tort of negligence. The plaintiffs in this case (the tenants) apparently did not make a breach of contract claim. The language of the opinion, however, suggests that tenants who find themselves in similar situations might be able to win if they sue for breach of contract rather than negligence.