2

Background: I am a college student in South Carolina, USA.

I'm currently in a dispute with my landlord, over what I think is an unfair assumption of negligence about a plumbing leak. Our water bill last month was ~$400+ dollars due to a leaky toilet. The problem is that only 1 of my roommates was living in the apartment at the time, and did not equate the sound of a running toilet with wasting water.

I received a call from the city water department midway through the month claiming that our water meter was off the charts, and that we had a leak somewhere. We called maintenance, and they came to fix it, citing a broken water pump in the toilet. He also stated over the phone that we should not have to pay for it, and that either the town or the landlord should have to.

Now, both the city and the landlord is pointing at the other one claiming that the other side should have to pay.

Below are the relevant lease portions from the lease I signed with the landlord, which seem specific in what they cover, but are pretty vague in what "tenant negligence" is. They are claiming a running toilet is common knowledge of something broken, however I don't think that's the case. The toilet was not broken due to negligence and was broken due to reasonable wear and tear.

Furthermore, I think it's important to note the this landlord company is infamous for being absolute crooks. They control a construction company that owns ~50% of the housing in my college town, and have their tenants sign outrageous leases and charge absurd rent because they have a monopoly on the nicest locations in town. They are also currently in a legal battle because they were caught artificially inflating repair costs to make more money off of their tenants.

f. Plumbing & Appliances

TENANT is responsible for reporting leaks and stoppages immediately to LANDLORD. It is recommended that TENANT have their own plunger. Misuse or carelessness of drains , toilets, dishwashers, or garbage disposals will not be tolerated. Stoppages and repairs that result from TENANT negligence or placing items* not meant for garbage disposal, toilet, dishwasher, or drains will be charged at a minimum of sixty U.S. dollars ($60.00) to TENANT. * Do not pour grease down drain, flush paper towels or feminine products in toilet, or put foreign objects in disposal. Food items not meant for disposals include without limitation banana peels, corn shucks, egg shells, onion, and celery. Use only detergent intended for dishwashers when operating dishwasher.

Also

TWENTY‐FOUR: MAINTENANCE

Malfunctions or repairs that occur to the PREMISES must be reported within twenty‐four (24) hours of the incident in writing through the Tenant Portal or such maintenance will be considered to have been caused by the TENANT. TENANT agrees to keep and maintain the PREMISES in a good, clean condition and to make no alterations or additions thereon without prior written consent from LANDLORD. LANDLORD will do inspections as needed. Repair costs necessitated because of the neglect of TENANT or their guests are the responsibility of the TENANT.

What is my possible course of action here? Clearly the toilet had been broken for more than 24 hours, but I've read that normal wear and tear cannot be assigned to the tenant? Every other time I've complained about anything regarding the apartment they've been either dismissive or extremely rude, and I'm tired of being taken advantage of since I have already signed a lease here.

  • 2
    Is the dispute over payment for the parts and labor to repair the toilet, or for the cost of the water used? If the latter, who normally pays the water bill, you or your landlord? What does your lease say about this? – Nate Eldredge Jul 11 '18 at 22:39
  • The dispute is over the cost of the water used. Seeing as it was the malfunction of the landlord's toilet, and on recommendation of the maintenance worker, we wanted to landlord to help us. – Dupontrocks11 Jul 11 '18 at 23:36
  • So you normally pay the water bill? The water account is in your name? – Nate Eldredge Jul 12 '18 at 0:48
  • Correct, it's in my name. – Dupontrocks11 Jul 12 '18 at 14:56
4

As you say, the roommate who was there "did not equate the sound of a running toilet with wasting water". That, I am afraid to say, is negligent: normally, when you hear constantly flowing water, you do something about it. Somebody has to pay for the water, and assuming the water is in your name, that is you. You could yell at the roommate, but legal negligence is irrelevant to the water bill. However, if there were any resulting damage (for example to wiring or walls), that is where the question of negligence would come up: you probably would be found liable for damage to the building that resulting from letting the condition persist. But unless the fill valve broke at the tank and leaked water onto the floor (which would be clearly obvious) there won't be any damage that you are liable for.

I assume that the leak developed from an old part giving out. This would be normal wear and tear, for which you would not be responsible (assuming you didn't cause the problem, for example by putting concentrated bleach in the tank). You you are saying that the landlord is trying to charge you for the repairs, and on this point, the landlord is on thin ice. A landlord cannot just make up rules about assigning liability for damage: that is a matter to be determined by the courts. A tenant can do things to a fill valve that can cause a leak; and the seal has to be replaced every few years. The tenant is not liable especially for routine replacement of the fill value seal, and does not become liable because they failed to inform the landlord in a prescribed manner. Not reporting a leak within 24 hours does not contribute to the underlying failed part. You could probably contest the legality of that bit of maintenance clause 24, in that the landlord cannot unilaterally declare who is responsible for damage. At the trial, both sides will present relevant evidence, and the judge / jury will decide whether the tenant's negligence caused the seal to fail.

  • It was a broken fill valve, for clarity's sake. I included the Twenty-Fourth clause of my lease agreement, where it says that any malfunction that remains unreported for 24+ hours is considered to have been caused by the tenant. Are you saying that this clause might not be legal? – Dupontrocks11 Jul 11 '18 at 20:47
  • 1
    They can claim that they consider it to be caused by the tenant, but they can consider anything they like, that doesn't mean the tenant caused it. What matters isn't what they consider, but whether it is the tenant's fault or not. – gnasher729 Jul 11 '18 at 22:04
  • 1
    They can however blame you for consequential damage, like the water bill, or if the broken toilet caused damage elsewhere. – gnasher729 Jul 11 '18 at 22:07
  • 2
    "the landlord cannot unilaterally declare who is responsible for damage": but the landlord isn't declaring it unilaterally; it's a term in a contract that the tenant signed, so the two parties have agreed to it. – phoog Jul 11 '18 at 22:51
  • Whether the tenant caused the damage or not is a fact. Contracts cannot change facts. Could be different if the contract said "if ... the tenant will pay for the damage". – gnasher729 Jul 12 '18 at 21:14
0

Given that the dispute is over the water used, and that the lease provides that the tenant has a duty to notify the landlord of leaks within 24 hours, there is little or no chance that the landlord would have a legal obligation to reimburse you for the water bill.

The fact that the landlord is the dominant landlord in your town also means that the limited jurisdiction civil courts in that town that would handle the case are almost surely predisposed to favor the landlord in a close case.

Furthermore, there is almost surely no cost effective way to litigate this issue with a lawyer since the amount in controversy is too small to make it cost effective (you are talking a dispute where the amount disputed is less than two hours of a lawyer's billable time).

Even if you prevail, you would not be entitled to your attorneys' fees from your landlord unless the lease provides that this is the case when you prevail, which is probably does not in a lease from a landlord which such a large portfolio of rental properties. So, if you hired a lawyer, you would almost certainly end up upside down even if you won the case.

But, you can't get what you want without suing the landlord without securing the landlord's voluntary cooperation which seems unlikely in this case. Without a lawyer, however, the likelihood that you would make some critical mistake at trial is high, most likely either because you argue the wrong legal theory, because you fail to provide case law support for your legal theory to the judge, or because you are not able to present key evidence because you overlooked some disclosure rule or rule of evidence. It is also almost surely not cost effective to present expert testimony concerning the capacity of an average person to know that the sound that your roommate heard does not put a reasonable person on notice that there is a leak that requires landlord attention, even if you could locate someone who would be qualified to offer an expert opinion who would be willing to testify to that effect.

The downside of losing a case that you bring against the landlord is also very high. The lease almost surely provides that if you lose a lawsuit against the landlord that you must pay the landlord's legal fees, which are likely to be $1,500 to $5,000 or more, in addition to leaving you stuck with the water bill and in addition to your lease probably being terminated if the legal bill from the landlord is not paid immediately.

Losing a lawsuit against your landlord and having a judgment entered against you for the landlord's legal fees and costs, even if it was paid immediately, could also significantly harm your credit rating.

  • your advise "feels" wrong - are you saying there is no "small claims court" or "tenancy tribunal" in South Carolina where you can represent yourself and there are no (significant) lawyers/legal fees invovled ? – davidgo Jul 13 '18 at 5:31
  • @davidgo I am saying that you can still screw up in a small claims court for the reasons identified, and that the landlord (which is almost surely an entity) will not only be allowed to, but may even be required to appear in court through a lawyer. You can not hire a lawyer at your own risk, but you generally can't stop them from hiring a lawyer and charging you with that lawyer if you lose. And yes, there is a small claims court. See scbar.org/public/get-legal-help/common-legal-topics/… and sccourts.org/selfhelp/FAQMagistrate.pdf – ohwilleke Jul 13 '18 at 5:34
  • I cant read your second link (blocked by security rules) :< Are you sure you can get a lawyers costs award in the South Carolina small claims courts - it would seem incongruous with the $40 filing fee, $7500 limit and the bargaining positions of each party. If true, I'm glad I live in New Zealand, where this kind of inequity is not on. – davidgo Jul 13 '18 at 6:06
  • @daavidgo Yes, I am sure that attorneys fees awards can be granted in a South Carolina small claims court (where otherwise allowed under general U.S. law principles) and I am sure that defendants can be represented by attorneys in small claims courts in South Carolina. – ohwilleke Jul 13 '18 at 6:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.