Landlords have some degree of legal responsibility to provide secure housing. This means they must take reasonable steps to:
- protect tenants from would-be assailants, thieves, and other criminals
- protect tenants from the criminal acts of fellow tenants
- warn tenants about dangerous situations they are aware of but cannot eliminate, and
- protect the neighborhood from their tenants' illegal activities, such as drug dealing.
When landlords don't live up to this responsibility, they may be liable for any injuries or losses that befall tenants as a result.
A tenant or neighbor also may sue the landlord for maintaining or allowing a "nuisance"–a serious and persistent condition that adversely affects the tenant's (or neighbor's) enjoyment of the property–even if no physical injury occurs. For example, a tenant plagued by the stench of a pile of garbage because the landlord hasn't provided enough garbage cans for the apartment building can sue the landlord for the annoyance and inconvenience of putting up with the smell.
Tenants Band Together
Increasingly, tenants have gotten together to hold landlords accountable for failing to fulfill their legal responsibility to maintain rental property in a habitable condition. For example, tenants and homeowners have extended this group action approach to sue landlords for failing to protect tenants and neighbors from drug dealers, neighborhood gangs, or other tenants who are creating excessive noise, running an illegal business, or throwing trash in common areas. Similarly, homeowners have filed multiple suits to collect damages from neighbors who allow their teenage children to create disturbances that keep the neighborhood awake all night.
This technique of using small claims court for groups of individual actions became popular after a neighborhood group successfully banded together to bring hundreds of small claims suits against the City of San Francisco to recover damages for the nuisance created in their neighborhood by the noise from the city airport (City & Co. of S.F. vs. Small Claims Division, San Mateo Co., 190 Cal.Rptr. 340 (1983)).
Despite the fact that this approach is legal and effective, some judges have greeted the filing of many simultaneous lawsuits with verbal disapproval. Nonetheless, a number of claimants in such cases have been successful in obtaining a quick and inexpensive resolution of their neighborhood disputes when other channels for solving their problems had failed. It appears that unless society or the legal system creates another efficient, economic alternative for dealing with neighborhood problems such as these, small claims court judges will be facing a growing number of this type of claims whether they like it or not.
One problem that often arises in this type of case is how much to sue for. Assuming the annoyance is serious and persistent and the landlord or other source of the problem does not take reasonable steps to reduce or eliminate it after receiving a written demand to do so, it often makes sense for each claimant to sue for the small claims maximum and let the judge scale this back if the court feels that a lower amount is appropriate.