Are landlords responsible for smoke detectors to be functional in a rental property?

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Question:

A small fire had broke out in a home that I rent. I was cooking something in the toaster oven and went upstairs. I came down just in time before the fire spread outside of the toaster oven, however a lot of smoke stains are on the ceiling. I realized afterwards that the batteries on the smoke detectors were broken. I am being held liable now for the damages but I think the landlord was responsible for the smoke detectors to be functional? I only moved in a couple months ago.

Answer:

Many states and cities require that rental units include functioning smoke detectors. Typically, the landlord is responsible for testing the smoke detector at the start of the tenancy (in the tenant’s presence), and demonstrating that they are in good working order. Tenants are then usually responsible for recognizing the signs of a failing detector (for example, a beeping noise), testing the devices periodically on their own, and replacing batteries as necessary. To find the rules regarding smoke detectors in your area (including penalties for landlords who violate these rules), contact your local fire department.

Your question as to who is responsible for the fire would delight law professors everywhere. Let’s suppose that the landlord did everything right under your state’s law covering smoke detectors, and that the failure of the detectors (the dead batteries) was your fault, because you didn’t test as needed, or alert the landlord or replace the batteries when the warning beep sounded. If that’s what happened, you will bear full responsibility for the damage.

But suppose the landlord did not follow state law, and handed over a rental with malfunctioning detectors? Now your argument might be that if the detectors had been in working order, the alarm would have sounded, you would have come running, and the fire would have been contained sooner, with less damage. Therefore, you’ll argue, you should be responsible only for that amount of damage that happened up to and slightly after the alarm sounded. But there’s a mighty big assumption at play here: Even if the detectors had sounded, would you have heard them? You were upstairs, in another unit, and unless you can demonstrate that their sound would have carried that far, you won’t be too successful with this theory.

In practice, here’s what will happen. If you have renter’s insurance, your policy will cover the entire cost of the damage. The carrier might investigate the alarm issue, thinking that it might be able to go after the landlord for some of that money if the landlord was the one who failed to deliver working alarms.

If you don’t have renter’s insurance, expect your landlord to take the repair costs from your security deposit and hand you a bill for the balance, then demand that you bring the deposit back to its original amount.

Word to the wise: If you don’t have it, now’s the time to consider getting renters’ insurance. It will cover damages caused by fires such as this one, loss due to theft, and more.

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