Who is Liable for Texas Apartment Fires?

The southwest Houston apartment fire that claimed the life of a hearing-impaired tenant earlier this month was just the latest in a string of residential fires this winter. Three home fires claimed lives on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning—two at private residences and one at the Country Club Village Apartments. 10-year-old Angel Molina died of smoke inhalation following the Country Club Village fire, and the boy’s father was severely burned attempting to save him.

The immediate trauma associated with a residential fire is obvious: loss of life or injury, destruction of personal possessions, and displacement from the home. But for many victims of apartment fires, the initial loss is only the beginning. They may face large medical bills, the need to replace many—or even all—of their possessions, and difficulty finding alternative housing on short notice. And, it may be unclear who is responsible for these often-overwhelming expenses.
The answer to that question may vary, depending on the cause of the fire, the terms of the residential lease agreement, and the insurance coverage involved.

When is a Landlord Responsible for Apartment Fire Damages?

Many tenants believe that the owner of an apartment building or complex is responsible for any losses associated with a fire on the premises, or that the landlord’s insurance will cover any damage. Typically, the landlord’s insurance covers damage to the building and premises, the landlord’s property on the premises, and liability to third parties due to the landlord’s negligence.

This misconception may leave those who have suffered fire losses unprepared and unprotected.
Generally, the landlord will only be liable for the tenant’s losses if the damages were caused by the landlord’s negligence. For example, the landlord fails to properly maintain the building, and faulty wiring causes a fire. Note, though, that a negligent landlord may be liable for damages even if his negligence didn’t start the fire. For example:

The landlord failed to supply and maintain smoke detectors as required by law, and the absence of smoke detectors delayed discovery of the fire and led to increased damages

  • The landlord blocked (or allowed blockage of) passageways or emergency exits, preventing victims from escaping the fire
  • The landlord unreasonably stored hazardous materials in the building and the presence of those materials accelerated the fire
  • The landlord failed to meet applicable fire code standards of construction

What if Landlord Negligence Did Not Cause the Fire or Increase the Harm?

It’s possible that another party may be liable for the harm caused by an apartment fire. For example, if the fire was caused by a defective appliance, lamp, or other product, the manufacturer and supplier may be legally responsible.

In some cases, though, the victim or victims may not be able to recover damages from the responsible party. The most obvious example is a situation in which another tenant’s negligence caused the fire. Unless the tenant carries renter’s insurance that would cover the losses, it may be impossible to collect simply because few individual tenants have sufficient assets to pay for the damages and injuries caused by a significant residential fire.

Renter’s Insurance May Cover Some Fire-Related Losses

If you’ve suffered losses in an apartment fire, your own renter’s insurance may pay to replace much of your property and cover your liability (or a portion of your liability) if you were responsible for the fire. However, renter’s insurance policies vary, so it’s important to discuss the specifics with your insurance agent and make sure you have adequate coverage.

Talk to a Lawyer Regarding Your Apartment Fire

Determining liability for an apartment fire generally requires an investigation into the cause of the fire. This may be complicated and expert opinions may conflict. Naturally, the landlord and the landlord’s insurer will quickly go to work attempting to avoid liability for the harm done by the fire.

If you’ve suffered injuries and losses in an apartment fire or have lost a loved one, it is in your best interest to consult an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible, before evidence is lost or destroyed.