Real Estate

Is My Landlord Responsible for Damage to My Personal Property If There Is a Fire?

By Janet Portman, Attorney
Whether a landlord owes a tenant for damage to personal property in a fire depends on how the fire got started.

The answer to this question depends on who is responsible for the fire. Once you can pinpoint the cause of the fire, you can address how the damage might be paid for, and whether your landlord’s insurance will step up. Let’s look at the possible scenarios.

The landlord is responsible for the fire. Let’s say that the fire resulted from the landlord’s failure to properly maintain the rental, by failing to repair old and shoddy wiring. Because the landlord’s negligence was the cause of the damage to your personal property, you would have a legal claim against the landlord for its replacement. In this situation, the landlord’s property insurance policy will not cover the cost, but its liability coverage should cover.

You can make a claim on this policy if you can get the landlord to give you its carrier’s name and contact information. If the landlord won’t cooperate, you’ll need to file a lawsuit. At this point, the landlord will either voluntarily refer the claim to its carrier, or fight it out with you in court. Landlords who face sizable claims are more likely to refer them to their insurance carriers than those who are hit with modest damage demands—these landlords may prefer to deal with them directly and not involve their insurance carriers, because by not referring claims, they hope to keep premiums down.

You are responsible for the fire. Now, imagine that your negligence caused the blaze—for example, suppose you forgot to turn off a stove burner. Here, your landlord is not responsible, nor will its insurance policy help you out. The landlord’s property insurance policy will cover damage only to the structure and the contents that the landlord owns, such as damage to the kitchen and the stove. It will not cover the tenant’s property. If you have renters’ insurance, it will cover the cost of replacing your belongings, because it is designed to cover you when you experience a loss due to your negligence. And rest assured that the company will not turn around and sue you for the claim it has just paid out.

The fire was caused by a third party. Now, suppose the fire spread from next door. Again, neither the landlord nor its property insurance company will be financially responsible for your ruined or lost belongings. But if the fire was the result of the neighboring landowner’s negligence, you’d have a valid claim against that person. You’d proceed as described above (“The landlord is responsible for the fire”). You’d try to deal directly with the neighbor’s insurance carrier but, failing that, would have to file a lawsuit and wait to see whether the neighbor tenders the claim to its carrier or stays in court to battle with you. And what about your renters’ insurance? It should cover you, as explained above. And in this situation, your carrier would be free to sue the neighbor for the cost of your claim.

The fire was caused by an “act of God.” A lightning strike is commonly called an “act of God,” and to date, no one has figured out how to sue the Almighty. Nor is your landlord responsible for keeping the skies above his property free of thunderstorms. This leaves you with your renters’ policy, which will cover (a few old policies excluded damage caused by lightning, but most modern policies cover it). Keep in mind, however, that renters’ policies will exclude coverage from damage due to other specified “perils,” which include earthquakes, floods, and sewer backups.

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