Owning real estate in New York carries a host of legal responsibilities, particularly if you own a rental property. Under New York law, a landlord may be held liable for “injury caused by a defective or dangerous condition” if there is a legal or contractual duty to “maintain the premises in repair.” A landlord’s obligations therefore depend on technical interpretations of language in a tenant’s lease or local administrative codes, as a recent decision by New York’s highest court illustrates.
Landlord Not Responsible for Child Who Spent Time in Relative’s Apartment
Exposure to lead-based paint poses a significant health risk to children under the age of six. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.” Unfortunately, many older buildings, particularly those constructed in New York City prior to 1960, contain lead paint. For this reason, the City’s administrative code requires landlords to remove or cover lead paint in any apartment where “a child or children under six years of age reside.”
In 1997, a three-month old child spent approximately 50 hours per week at his grandmother’s apartment. The grandmother provided daycare while the child’s parents worked full-time. The parents and child lived at a separate apartment nearby.
About a year into this daycare arrangement, the parents learned the child had “an elevated blood level,” according to court records. New York City officials later confirmed the presence of lead paint in the grandmother’s apartment. The parents claimed this lead paint exposure caused their child to suffer “brain damage and various cognitive deficits.”
The parents eventually sued the landlord of the grandmother’s apartment, alleging its failure to follow the City’s administrative code constituted negligence. The landlord noted the code only required removal of lead paint when a child “resides” in an apartment. Here, the landlord argued the child did not reside in his grandmother’s apartment, therefore it was not liable as a matter of law.
The New York Court of Appeals agreed with the landlord. In a 6-1 decision, the Court held the word “resides,” as used in the City’s lead paint regulation, clearly meant “living in a particular place with the intent to retain it as a residence.” It did not extend to “children who do not actually live in an apartment but spend significant amounts of time there.” Had the New York City Council wished to define “resides” that way, it could have done so, the Court observed, but it did not.