Who pays for damages -- landlord or tenant?

  • Article by: KELLY KLEIN
  • Updated: November 24, 2012 - 2:18 PM

Q I moved into an apartment two months ago, and immediately detected a rancid odor coming from the garbage-disposal drain. Various maintenance technicians made visits -- seven trips total -- before the problem was resolved. In the process, my new kitchen sink mats absorbed the odor and needed to be replaced.

I deducted the cost of replacement mats from my rent, with an explanation, but the manager returned the check and threatened a late fee if "full" payment wasn't received. She told me they never compensate for, or allow deductions for, damaged possessions, even if it is not the tenant's fault. She admitted that she refused to reimburse another tenant for inedible food after a refrigerator recently malfunctioned. She claims that renters' insurance must cover those expenses. Are landlords legally able to do this?

A Landlords, like everyone else, are responsible for their own negligence, as long as the damages are foreseeable. In this instance, the landlord resolved the complaint regarding the sink. Whether or not the landlord has a duty to replace the kitchen sink mats depends on whether it would be foreseeable as to whether or not the sink mats might need to be replaced because of sink odor.

Renters' insurance should cover these mats (although the value may be below the deductible), if you have it. If you do not have renters' insurance and the lease requires it, then the landlord may be able to argue that you breached the lease by not obtaining the insurance, and therefore does not owe you a duty.

Still, I think that it is likely that a court may find that the landlord is responsible for the damage to the mats, so long as such damage was foreseeable.

Your only option at this time is to pursue a conciliation-court action against the landlord for the cost of replacing the mats.

Couple broke lease, landlord kept deposit

Q My wife and I were renting an apartment in Coon Rapids and had to break our lease because my wife was having anxiety problems. The property manager told us this was no problem and that he had someone who wanted to rent our place.

I didn't notice when we signed our lease that $250 of our security deposit was non-refundable. I asked the property manager why, and he just said it was in the lease and gave no other reason. Is this legal?

A Minnesota law states that any attempted waiver of the security deposit by a landlord and tenant, by contract or otherwise, is void and unenforceable. Therefore, according to Minnesota law, your $250 security deposit cannot be waived in your lease and made non-refundable.

The only way your landlord can legally keep any of your security deposit is to mail you a letter within three weeks stating why he is withholding the amount reasonably necessary to cover your default in rent payment or other funds owed by you in a separate agreement, or to restore your apartment to its condition at the time you started renting, excluding ordinary wear and tear. The burden of proof for withholding any or all of your deposit is on your landlord. A tenant may file an action in conciliation court to recover all or part of the security deposit.

There is a dilemma in your case, though, since your landlord has been kind enough to let you out of your lease early. Many tenants are required to pay a couple of months' rent under a buy-out clause in order to break their lease early.

However, it doesn't sound like your landlord required you to pay any additional funds to terminate your lease early. You may want to contact your landlord and see if you can work out some type of arrangement whereby you get a portion of the security deposit back. You didn't mention the condition you left the apartment in, either, but $250 doesn't go far when hiring professionals to clean and paint an apartment.

If you do work out an agreement with your landlord allowing you to receive some of your security deposit back, make sure to get the agreement in writing so you are protected.

Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to kklein@kleinpa.com. Information provided by readers is not confidential.

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