While negligent landlords of rental housing are not ordinarily protected against liability through waivers signed by their tenants, a landlord may enforce a tenant liability waiver related to the operation of a tenant-only health club, an amenity which is outside the core function of the apartment complex. (Lewis Operating Corporation v. The Superior Court of Riverside County (— Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 4 Dist., November 10, 2011).)
A tenant of an apartment complex (“Tenant”) was injured while using a treadmill at a health club at the apartment complex. The health club is operated by the landlord of the apartment complex (“Landlord”), and use of the facility is limited to tenants of the apartment complex. While Tenant was using the treadmill, a person who is identified as an employee or agent of an athletic training company rolled a ball either under or into the treadmill that Tenant was using, causing it to flip upward and throw Tenant off of the machine.
Tenant brought a lawsuit against Landlord and the athletic training company. Landlord filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that Tenant had waived his claims against Landlord for injuries arising out of the use of health and recreation facilities. In response, Tenant asserted that the release and waiver of liability he signed was void because it violated public policy. The trial court agreed with Tenant’s argument and denied Landlord’s motion for summary judgment.
The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in concluding that Tenant’s release and waiver of liability violated public policy and in denying Landlord’s motion for summary judgment. As a general rule a landlord may not enforce against a tenant an agreement to waive liability for the landlord’s negligence. However, the Court of Appeal held this general rule does not apply here.
The rental agreement between Landlord and Tenant provides that Tenant assumes all risk of harm resulting from use of the health and recreation facilities. Tenant agreed to waive all of his claims against Landlord that arise from or are related to the use of the facilities or the participation in activities and programs by Tenant and his guests, even if the claims are caused by Landlord’s negligence or gross negligence.
Civil Code section 1953, subdivision (a)(5) provides that a provision of a lease or rental agreement is void as contrary to public policy if it attempts to waive a landlord’s duty of care to prevent personal injury or property damage. The issue before the Court of Appeal in this case was whether public policy prohibits those residential lease exculpatory clauses that attempt to waive liability for “noncore functions” of the leased premises.
The Court noted that a landlord may be liable for negligence even if a dangerous condition does not exist in a tenant’s dwelling and does not affect the “habitability or tenantability” of the leased premises. Such a situation could arise from a tenant’s use of common areas such as walkways, corridors, or parking areas. However, the court concluded that a landlord’s duty to maintain areas of the apartment complex that can be described as “amenities” does not necessarily trigger the rule found in section 1953 or case law related to landlords and exculpatory clauses that affect public interests.
The Court found that Landlord’s provision of an on-site exercise facility or health club was outside “the basic, heavily regulated offering of a residential dwelling.” Also, the law has consistently enforced waivers, releases, and exculpatory clauses in the context of recreational activities, including use of a health club. The Court held that where a landlord chooses to offer its tenants an on-site exercise facility or health club, there is no reason the landlord may not protect itself by requiring the tenant to agree to waive or release liability as a condition of using the facility or club, just as an operator of a stand-alone facility could lawfully protect itself through a waiver or release of liability.
The Court opined that section 1953 is designed to protect a tenant’s basic need for shelter. A tenant’s use of an exercise facility is not critical to the need for shelter. Landlord did not have a legal obligation to offer an exercise facility and therefore it could condition use of the facility on the execution of a waiver and release of liability. The exculpatory clause does not violate public policy and it can be enforced against Tenant.
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