When a Wisconsin tenant went to sleep with her blow dryer plugged into an electrical outlet, she never suspected it would somehow spontaneously combust in the middle of the night. In fact, the accident was so freaky, we profiled the case during our Halloween Freak Week.
But now a court has determined that the landlord is responsible for payment of the $8,000 in fire damage that occurred, due to loopholes in the lease agreement.
The case has been bounced back and forth between courts for awhile, but ultimately the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that under principles of contract law, an ambiguous provision in a lease is to be construed so as to punish the party who wrote it.
Legal experts were disappointed that the Court didn’t specifically decide whether a landlord can shift liability for accidents to the tenant through the lease, even if the accident occurred through no fault of the tenant or the landlord. However, the Supreme Court Justices did imply how they might interpret that question by their reluctance to find the lease could have imposed liability for acts within the tenant’s control regardless of how remote the tenant„¢s act was from the damage.
One Justice added that while landlords are not necessarily prohibited from allocating liability to tenants in the lease, the language must not only be clear, but that allocation must be “otherwise enforceable by law.”
The lease agreement included a provision that the tenant would be liable for any damage to the property, appliances, and equipment that was caused by the tenant’s actions.
The landlord tried to argue that the tenant was liable simply because it was her blow dryer that caused the fire. A lower court found that the tenant would be liable under the terms of the lease, but then an appellate court overturned that decision, holding that where there was no negligence on the part of the tenant, nor on the part of the landlord, the landlord should be responsible for the damage. The Supreme court agreed with that decision.
Not all of the Justices agreed. One dissenter wrote that the tenant could be held responsible for the fire, and felt that the lease provision was clear enough. He went on to say that there is nothing in the law that would prevent a landlord from allocating liability to a tenant for damage, even when the tenant did not act negligently.
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