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I live with 3 roommates and all 4 of us are on a lease for the condo owned by our landlord.

TL;DR my roommate "Jim" caused water damage to several rooms and I'm looking for advice on what I can personally do since none of the damage was directly my fault.

Full story: The sink in the bathroom on the second floor doesn't drain and we have been unable to use it without the sink filling up with water. The previous landlord knew about the plumbing issues and our current landlord was made aware of this problem when ownership of the condo was transferred to them. In the past few months since then, the landlord hasn't taken any steps to fix it, so my roommate "Tom" started to work on it himself in an attempt to clear the blockage.

Tom disassembled the pipe directly under the sink and for whatever reason was unable to fix the problem and left everything disassembled for a few days while he tried to come up with a solution. Every one of us knew NOT to run the faucet and to use the first floor bathroom sink instead. No problems for a few days.

However, Jim ended up using the sink on the second floor and left the faucet running for at least 2 hours. The water had nowhere to go but out the pipe and onto the bathroom floor. And over the course of those 2 hours the water went through the ceiling of the first floor (it was pouring out of the ceiling when we discovered it) and continued to leak down into the basement. The ceiling is deformed due to water damage and I can only assume there is still water in the ceiling of the first floor and the basement. I'm sure it's safe to assume there could be water in the walls, too.

Clearly there will have to be a lot of work done (and money spent) to fix the damage. From what I understand of the lease, the landlord won't care whose fault it is and will expect us to collectively pay him back for the repairs? As I did not cause any of the damage, what options do I have to protect myself and minimize the amount of money that I will have to pay? Do I hope for the landlord to have mercy on me, do I take this to court (I wouldn't expect to win as there is no proof it wasn't my fault), do I take my roommate(s) to small claims court, or am I just SOL?

Edit: I don't have renter's insurance and I'm unsure of what my landlord's insurance situation is.

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    "I wouldn't expect to win as there is no proof it wasn't my fault". Wrong. There is your testimony, and the testimony of your flatmates. That is evidence. Civil cases are decided on the balance of the evidence. – Paul Johnson Dec 16 '18 at 14:52
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Roommate caused water damage to our condo, what are my options?

The terms of your lease matter. For instance, your statement that

From what I understand of the lease, the landlord won't care whose fault it is and will expect us to collectively pay him back for the repairs

suggests that the lease establishes joint and several liability. Likewise, it is important to know what the lease says regarding landlord's responsibility to fix issues of the condo.

It is also unclear whether the lease prohibits tenants to do any fixing on the house. If it does, the landlord is likely to use it against all of you (or at least against Tom).

do I take this to court (I wouldn't expect to win as there is no proof it wasn't my fault)

I suggest you discuss the situation in an email to your three roommates (including Jim). Ideally, your email should prompt Jim to reply in a way that reflects --even if by way of Jim justifying himself-- that he left the faucet running despite being warned not to do so.

In your email discussion/reproach, be smart about Jim, but not tricky in a deceitful or wrongful sense: you are pursuing fairness and an equitable outcome only, not to cause any prejudice or unwarranted harm. In the event that this ends up in court, you will file this chain of emails --and most important: Jim's response(s)-- as evidence.

Moreover, the landlord's failure to follow up on the faucet longstanding issue(s) sounds in negligence, if not outright violation of the lease. Consequently, the landlord's contributory negligence would shift to him at least some of the responsibility. Be sure to prove the landlord's negligence/recklessness.

Obtaining affidavits whereby your other roommates declare what they know (both as to Jim's action and as to the landlord's prior awareness of the facet issues) would also constitute evidence. Hearsay aside, witnesses' credibility will determine the weight of that evidence.

I'm unsure of what my landlord's insurance situation is.

It will help to ask the landlord before you take matters to court, as there might be some easy solution. However, knowing that the landlord has been neglecting the faucet issue for so long, I doubt he took the precaution of buying insurance.

do I take my roommate(s) to small claims court

Based on the damage you describe, fixing the whole mess will exceed the maximum amount that can be handled in small claims court. If so, this would have to be litigated in trial court. But the roommate to take to court as defendant is Jim (and, perhaps, the landlord), not the other roommates. You, Tom, and the 4th roommate might file as co-plaintiffs, which is different than you suing them.

P.S: I am not knowledgeable of Wisconsin landlord-tenant legislation. My conjecture, though, is that it would not address issues that in and of themselves are minor and do not compromise tenants' safety.

  • To this excellent answer, I would add that the four of you need to talk to a lawyer together ASAP. – Paul Johnson Dec 16 '18 at 14:49
  • Even if the landlord is insured, the contributory negligence of not fixing the sink might make the insurance co turn down the claim. – Martin Bonner Dec 16 '18 at 15:22
  • @PaulJohnson I am pretty sure Jim needs his own lawyer. Tom might too. The other two can use the same lawyer. – Martin Bonner Dec 16 '18 at 15:23
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    @MartinBonner You may well be right, but as they appear to be joint & severally liable I figured they could start by talking to one lawyer, who would then tell them if they needed separate representation. – Paul Johnson Dec 16 '18 at 15:31
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    @Paul Johnson I think it would be quite unwise for all four tenants to consult a single lawyer. If that lawyer concluded (as seems likely) that Jim's interests conflict with those of the others, and if Jim had disclosed confidential info to the lawyer, the lawyer might be ethically unable to represent any of the tenants If the two who are neither Jim nor Tom first consulted a lawyer jointly, they could be advised whether to bring the others into the lawyer-client relationship. – David Siegel Dec 16 '18 at 17:21

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