Q: There is an elderly woman who has dementia living in one of the units in my four-unit building. She has accidentally started two minor fires in her unit this year. I’m worried for the safety of the other residents. I am sympathetic to her condition, but I am worried for the safety of the other tenants. How should I handle this situation?
A: Ordinarily, a tenant starting a fire inside their unit would be guilty of intentional damage or causing a nuisance, and could be evicted under State and local law. In addition, the potential catastrophic liability to other tenants for loss of life and property from an uncontrolled blaze demands a response from the landlord. However, the circumstance of mental illness warrants a careful and delicate approach.
Other than providing safe and habitable housing (and other housing services), a landlord has no other duty for the welfare of their tenants. A landlord might reasonably expect that an elderly tenant suffering from dementia would receive the support and intervention from the tenant’s family or social community. However, the responsibility for handling the tenant’s housing may still fall on the landlord if nobody else is authorized to intervene, because of the fact of the tenant’s presence in the premises and the dangers they may impose on themselves or others (e.g. fire.)
A landlord should move quickly to connect the tenant with appropriate social services to look after the tenant’s safety and welfare. Adult Protective Services (http://www.sfdaas.org/DAAS.htm) is a good place to start. Cooperate with caregivers and case workers as much as possible, and document your efforts.
Landlords should resort to litigation only as a last result, if nobody else can be found to intervene, or if the fires or other dangers recur. Although a landlord may be frustrated by the lack of support from other sources, a senior with dementia will be a sympathetic litigant. Ensure that each instance of fire or other dangerous incident is thoroughly documented. Do not attempt an eviction without the assistance of an attorney. Because of the inherent uncertainty associated with litigation, be prepared to consider settlements which permit the tenant to remain in possession while they receive care.
At the same time, you can take the opportunity to make sure that your insurance is up-to-date, since a fire may originate from any unit. If the worst occurs, you should have the security that you are covered for the loss, and the evidence to demonstrate that you were actively working to prevent the disaster to the extent you were able.
Copyright © 2017 by Fried & Williams LLP. All Rights Reserved. The information in this article is general in nature and should not be considered legal advice. For any specific matter, please consult with an attorney.