A treadmill accident in a Riverside County apartment complex has led to a state appeals court ruling narrowing tenants’ ability to sue landlords for negligence.

A 1975 California law prohibits rental agreements that purport to excuse the landlord from any legal “duty of care to prevent personal injury or personal property damage.” But in a 2-1 ruling Thursday, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Riverside said the law applies only to “core functions” of the residence and not to “amenities” like recreation areas.

The law was intended to protect “a tenant’s basic, essential need for shelter” and leaves a landlord free to demand a waiver of liability for “a nonessential matter of personal improvement or enjoyment” like a gym, the court majority said. The dissenting justice said the court was trying to rewrite the law.

The case dates from April 2009, when John Costahaude fell off a treadmill at an apartment complex in Mira Loma and injured his shoulder. In his suit against the property owners, Costahaude said one of their employees had carelessly rolled an exercise ball under the treadmill, causing it to flip upward and throw him off.

The owners sought to dismiss the suit because their rental agreements required tenants to accept “all risk of harm” at a gymnasium on the grounds and barred them from suing the landlords for negligence. A Superior Court judge said the agreement conflicted with the 1975 state law, but the appeals court disagreed.

Landlords are legally required to provide dwellings that are habitable and safe, but have no obligation to offer health and recreation facilities, said Justice Douglas Miller in the majority opinion ordering dismissal of the case.

Since the owner of a private gym can require customers to waive the right to sue for negligence in order to use the equipment, Miller said, “there is no reason why the landlord may not protect itself by requiring the tenant, as a condition of use of the amenity, to execute the same waiver.”

But dissenting Justice Jeffrey King said the law was designed to protect tenants from unknowingly signing away their right to sue landlords for carelessness anywhere on the grounds, including recreational areas.

“It is not for the court to make its own exception based on its notion of what the policy should be,” King said.

Michael Terhar, a lawyer for the property owners, said the ruling would encourage landlords to provide on-site recreation and other amenities. The tenant’s lawyer was unavailable for comment. He could appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The ruling can be viewed at links.sfgate.com/ZLEL.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.
from SF Chron- Original article here