The Necessity Rule Considered: Vinings Run Condo Association v. Stuart-Jones

When an occupant of a condominium is injured as a result of a dangerous condition on the property, who is liable for that injury? As shown in the case of Vinings Run Condo Association v. Stuart Jones, the answer may not be as obvious as one might think.

Ms. Stuart-Jones had a verbal agreement with the owner of a condominium unit to rent-purchase the home. While living there, she became aware of unsafe conditions around the concrete stairs, including the need for lighting and a hand-rail. She notified the condominium association of the conditions, but no action was taken to make repairs.

Landlords are presumed to have superior knowledge of dangerous conditions on their property, which means that if a tenant, unaware of the condition, is injured, the landlord is ordinarily liable. Under Georgia real property law, a tenant cannot recover damages from a landlord if the tenant continues to use an area of the property which he or she knows is dangerous. However, under the "necessity rule," a tenant may recover damages if there is no other means of safe entry into or exit from the home—in other words, if the use of the unsafe area was a necessity.

When Stuart-Jones fell and suffered injuries, she sued the condominium association and its management company, citing the necessity rule. The defendants argued that the rule did not apply because there was no landlord-tenant relationship between them and Stuart-Jones; Stuart-Jones' landlord was the owner of the unit, and was not a named defendant in the lawsuit. In an apparent victory for the tenant, the trial court rejected this argument. However, the defendants appealed, and in 5-4 split decision, the Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed the trial court, stating that the necessity rule did not apply in this case because there was no landlord-tenant relationship between Stuart-Jones and the Vinings Run Condo association or its management company.

Should the Necessity Rule Apply to Condo Associations?

The dissent in this case pointed out that the "animating principle" of the necessity rule—that a tenant should not be held prisoner in his or her own home by a dangerous condition—applies to condominium homes as well as to rental homes. Previous cases rejecting an extension of the necessity rule did so because the facts of those cases would require extending the rule beyond this animating principle.

One such case (Shansab v. Homart Development Company, 205 Ga.App. 448, 451 (4) (422 SE2d 305) (1992)) declined to extend the necessity rule to a situation involving an employee who had to cross an icy parking lot to reach her office. Another case that declined to apply the rule involved an innkeeper and guest (Hart v. Brasstown View Estates, 234 Ga. App. 389, 391 (506 SE2d 896) (1998)). Another case, involving a tenant who was injured slipping on a recently-formed patch of ice outside of her apartment, noted that the rule does not apply where there is a business-owner customer relationship between landlord and tenant (Grier v. Jeffco Mgmt. Co., 176 Ga. App. 158, 159 (335 SE2d 408) (1985)).

The Vinings Run case is arguably different from the cases above. The entity in control of the property, the condo association, had knowledge of the dangerous condition and the authority to repair it; the condo owner who was Stuart-Jones' landlord did not have such authority to repair or alter the condo's common property. The effect of the ruling in the case is to violate the principle that a tenant of a property should not be held prisoner in his or home by a dangerous condition. While Vinings Run may not technically have been Stuart-Jones' landlord, the association stood in a virtually identical position with respect to the necessity rule.

What the Vinings Run Case May Mean For Renters of Condominiums

As the law stands, condominium associations may escape liability for dangerous conditions of which they are aware, even if a tenant has no choice but to navigate the condition, so long is there is not a direct landlord-tenant relationship between them. Individuals who are renting a condo from the condo's owner could potentially be left without recourse if they are injured by dangerous conditions that they have duly reported.

The wisest course of action, if you are a renter of a condominium, is to give notice of any dangerous condition in writing to the condo owner as well as the condo association, and to consult a Georgia real estate litigation attorney to discuss how your rights can be protected. You may also wish to have an attorney review any lease before you sign it so that you will be aware of your rights.

Fairness would seem to dictate that the necessity rule would apply in a situation between a renter of a condo and the condo association as it does between a landlord and tenant; unfortunately, it may take further litigation before the law reflects that position.