Can I sue my landlord for personal injury if there are no monetary losses?

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Can I sue my landlord for personal injury if there are no monetary losses?

I have notified my landlord multiple times dating back at least 6 months about the poor condition of the deck in the backyard. The deck has not been well maintained by the landlord and several boards have rotted and become unstable. A few days ago, my wife was on the deck and one of the boards collapsed and she fell to the ground. Luckily, the deck is only about a foot off the ground, but she did sustain some nasty bruises and strained some muscles. She was seen by a doctor following the incident. I am in the military and my family is covered under Tricare, so we did not incur any monetary charges for her clinic visit but I am wondering what legal recourse we might have against the landlord. In my opinion, it is their fault she got hurt because they have been and continue to be reluctant to make the necessary repairs to the deck. Is there a reasonable expectation of success legally or will I be creating more headache for myself by pursuing legal action? I am not after money, so much as I want to hold the landlord accountable for their negligence.

Asked on July 30, 2018 under Personal Injury, Washington

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 3 years ago | Contributor

As a practical matter, you cannot sue: the civil law system (lawsuits) is not designed to punish people for their negligence or wrongdoing, but rather to compensate those who are injured or who incur monetary costs/losses due to negligence. If there is no or almost no compensation owed, there is no point in suing. If you have no real costs and your wife fortunately suffered only bruises and muscle strains, you'd expend time, effort and money on the lawsuit, only to not get anything back.
What you can do is withhold rent--hold onto it; don't spend it--for the landlord's violation of the "implied warranty of habitability": the law imposes on landlords the obligation to ensure that rental premises are fit and safe for habitation. When the landlord allows safety issues to persist despite having (ideally written) notice of them, the tenant is justified in withholding rent to compel repairs. The landlord will presumably bring a legal action to evict you for nonpayment (so you have to be emotionally and practically, such as in terms of your time and availability, able to deal with getting an eviction notice and court date); you will show up in court and raise the lack of habitability (the safety issues) as a defense to nonpayment. The court will most likely have you deposit the withheld rent in court (that's why you have to make sure you retain it) pending a determination of whether the landlord needs to repair; if he does need to repair, him making the repairs; and a court determinatinon if any portion of the withheld rent should come back to you for having had to live with the safety/habitability issues.


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