Mansfield v. Real Estate Plus Inc. – Landlord Duty to Tenant in Stair Rail Collapse

The North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed a $200,000 judgment in favor of a tenant who was injured when the railing on the stairway of his apartment building collapsed during ordinary use.stairway

In Mansfield v. Real Estate Plus Inc., jurors did not hold the management company responsible for the injury, though the firm was named as a defendant. However, it did find the landlord had a duty to inspect and repair the defect, and plaintiff was not contributorily negligent for his own injuries. Defendant landlord appealed that verdict, but the appellate court rejected his arguments.

Plaintiff’s case was well-established in this premises liability action, which was originally tried in Craven County Superior Court. Key elements of such cases include:

  • A duty of care
  • Breach of duty
  • Causation (breach caused injuries)

Here, it is well established that landlords have a duty to tenants to keep common areas in a safe condition. Appellate court reflected on case law in opposition to defense argument that there was no breach of duty because he was not aware of the deficiency in the stair rail, which was proven to be caused by termites and fungus. In the 1981 case of Lenz v.Ridgewood Associates, the court ruled that the duty to keep common areas in a safe condition implies the duty to make a reasonable inspection and correct unsafe conditions that a reasonable inspection might reveal.

The problem with defendant’s argument that he had no actual or constructive knowledge of the defect – and therefore didn’t breach his duty to fix it – is that evidence showed defendant did not in the 20 years prior to the collapse inspect the property at all. The court was clear that a defendant can’t avoid the duty to maintain safety in common areas by simply no inspecting the property. Defendant conceded he never initiated a general inspection of the property and he didn’t have any contractors on retainer for termite inspections.

Plaintiff’s expert witness, an engineer, opined the railing defect was caused by termite damage and decay from fungus. Defendant argued this kind of defect would have only been discoverable with a type of destructive testing that would have required slicing through the railing. The law doesn’t require that. However, expert witness for plaintiff testified all that would be necessary to identify this problem would have been simply “hitting the post with your hand.”

The other argument made by defendant in this case was that plaintiff was contributorily negligent because he didn’t notify management of any alleged stairway defects. Had he succeeded in this argument, it would have effectively killed plaintiff’s case. North Carolina, unlike most other states, does not allow for a reduction in damages where contributory negligence is found. Instead, plaintiffs who contribute to their own injuries are barred from collecting anything at all. But there was no evidence presented by defendant that plaintiff knew about the defect, and unlike his landlord, he didn’t have a duty to inspect it.

Finally, defendant argued there was insufficient evidence the fall was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s personal injuries, as it was undisputed plaintiff suffered pain in his lower back from a pre-exsiting degenerative condition. However, an expert witness for plaintiff testified there was a reasonable degree of medical certainty that plaintiff’s fall on this defective stairway exacerbated his pre-existing condition.

After weighing all this, the state appeals court affirmed the jury verdict in favor of plaintiff for $200,000.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Mansfield v. Real Estate Plus Inc.,  Dec. 1, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals

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Lang v. Beachwood Pointe Care Center – $1 Million Nursing Home Abuse Award, Dec. 6, 2015, Asheville Injury Lawyer Blog

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