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Not So Fast! New case allows tenant's claims for misrepresentation and negligent repairs to go forward

It’s no secret that Virginia law usually sides with the landlord more than the tenant. It’s also no secret that Virginia courts tend to let cases go to the jury more than other jurisdictions. So what happens when a Virginia tenant brings claims of misrepresentation and negligent repairs against his landlord?

In Sales v. Kecoughtan Housing Company, Ltd. et al., Judge Lerner of the City of Hampton Circuit Court stopped the tenant in his tracks by sustaining the landlord’s demurrer. The Virginia Supreme Court recently reversed, sending the case back to the trial court.

Mr. Sales entered into a rental agreement with Kecoughtan Housing Company, which hired Mr. Abbitt to manage the apartments where Sales lived. After several months, Sales told Abbitt that there was mold in his apartment and asked to have the mold repaired. Abbitt, as Kecoughtan’s agent, went into the apartment to make the repairs, but actually only painted over the mold. Afterwards, Abbitt told Sales that the mold had been fixed and that the apartment was fine. Sales kept living in the apartment and continued to pay rent. A few months later, mold started growing in Sales’ eyes and infested and destroyed his personal property. Sales then sued Kecoughtan and Abbitt for defective repair, fraud and constructive fraud.

As to the negligent repair claim, Kecoughtan and Abbitt argued that they had no duty to make repairs, and that there was no showing that Abbitt’s repairs created any danger that caused Sales’ injury. The Virginia Supreme Court rejected these arguments, resting on the fact that although a landlord has no common law duty to make repairs after delivering possession of the premises to the tenant, once the landlord undertakes the repairs and enters the premises, the landlord must use reasonable care to make those repairs.

As to Sales’ actual and constructive fraud claims, Kecoughtan and Abbitt argued that the representations that the mold had been repaired and that the apartment was habitable were matters of opinion, not statements of fact. The Court rejected this argument as well, finding that the representations were statements of the apartment’s present quality or character, constituting statements of fact rather than mere opinions.

The lesson to be learned is – finish what you start. To all of the landlords and property managers out there, when a tenant asks you to make a repair, find out exactly what you are getting yourself into before you agree to go inside!