The Wisconsin Supreme Court filed its opinion in this very important case on July 7, 2010. While the majority opinion ruled against the landlord it did not go so far as to say that a landlord and tenant could not allocate liability for damage (when neither party was negligent in causing the damage) in their rental agreement.
The Court was split, so there is a majority opinion, a concurring opinion, and a dissenting opinion. So if you are brave enough you can read all three opinions which encompass 37 pages and can be read here. The Wisconsin Law Journal provides a very good summary of the decision if you are not feeling ambitious enough to read all 37 pages.
As an attorney who primarily represents landlords, I must admit that I had a mix of emotions after I finished reading the opinion. I was upset that the majority opinion held that the landlord should be responsible for damage to his rental property that was caused by the tenant leaving her hair dryer plugged in overnight. I was also frustrated by the fact that the major issue in the case — whether or not a landlord and tenant can allocate liability through the language of the rental agreement — was not addressed by the majority opinion, thus providing little guidance to landlords in the future. On the other hand I was also grateful that the majority decided to “pass the buck” and not address this issue becasue, quite frankly, if the majority had addressed that issue, I believe they would have said “no” a landlord cannot allocate liability on a tenant for damage that was not casued by the negligence of the tenant.
The majority opinion held that the landlord should be held responsible for the damage because the rental agreement (which was drafted by the landlord) was ambiguous when it came to who would be held liable for damage in a situation where neither the tenant not the landlord were negligent in causing the damage. The majority rested its decision on a very well established principle of contract law that any ambiguity in a contract should be construed against the drafter of the contract. The majority said that since the contract terms did not unambiguously state that the tenant would be liable for the damage under the specific fact situation in this case, then the landlord should be liable for the damage.
The majority declined to address the very important issue that the AASEW and other landlord associations were concerned about in this case — whether a landlord can add a lease provision assigning liability to a tenant for damages (when the damages is not caused by the tenant’s negligence) or whether doing so would be a violation of Wis. Stat. sec. 704.07. So essentially the “Supremes” chose to dodge the issue, which in effect means that nothing prevetns a landlord from allocating liability to a tenant for such damage in a rental agreement under similar facts. What this also means is that should a landlord make such an allocation and hold a tenant responsible for similar damage, the tenant can argue that such contract language violates sec. 704.07, and the courts will have no guidance as to how to rule.
It was a missed opportunity by the Supremes to add to Wisconsin Landlord-Tenant law. However, based, on the tortured analysis (my view) of the majority opinion, if the court had addressed the allocation of liability issue it would have most likely resulted in a holding that would not allow a landlord and tenant to allocate liability — which would have been even worse. So in the end maybe it was best that the issue was not addressed.
Justice Ziegler, who agreed with the majority opinion, wrote a concurring opinion to add that her view of Wisconsin law is that a landlord and tenant are not prohibited from allocating liability by contract as long as it is done clearly (i.e. no ambiguity) and is otherwise enforceable by law.
The dissenting opinion, which begins on page 18 and is authored by Justice Prosser, stated that not only are a landlord and tenant allowed to allocate liability in a rental agreement but that that is exactly what the parties to this lawsuit did and that the majority opinion is ignoring the clear meanign of the language in the rental agreement. The dissent did not find the lease to be ambiguous at all. The dissent, quite correctly in my opinion, points out the absurd nature of the majority opinion by saying that “imposing responsibility on the landlord for damage caused by a tenant, when the landlord cannot control risks created by the tenant” (like keeping a hair dryer plugged in overnight) defies economic logic.
The dissent, being very pragmatic, actually takes the time to address what the practical effect the majority decision will have on landlords by stating, “When the landlord is made responsible for abnormal damages that is actually caused by tenants, the landlord must spread the resulting expense among all tenants by charging higher rent. When a tenant is made liable for damage that is caused by that tenant, the landlord is better able to control rent and the tenant has an economic incentive for prudent stewardship of the premises.”
Which of the three opinions seem more reasonable and logical to you?