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Ibarra v. Gastelum - 7/23/2020

Court of Appeals Division One holds that the statutory duty to keep an apartment in a fit and habitable condition does not justify a negligence per se jury instruction.

An apartment tenant underwent a partial toe amputation after injuring himself on a large crack in the floor of his unit.  The tenant sued the landlord for negligence.  He requested a negligence per se jury instruction based on the landlord’s statutory duty under A.R.S. § 33-1324(A)(2) to “[m]ake all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition.”  If applicable, it would instruct the jury to determine whether the landlord violated the statute, in which case he was negligent, and then to determine whether his negligence was the cause of the tenant’s injury.

The trial court denied the tenant’s requested jury instruction but instructed the jury on negligence and premises liability.  The jury found for the landlord and the tenant subsequently appealed, arguing the denial of his jury instruction was reversible error.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial and found no error, holding that a negligence per se instruction was inappropriate under § 33-1324(A)(2).

First, the Court reasoned that Arizona’s Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, under which § 33-1324(A)(2) falls, does not address personal injury claims or remedies.  The purpose of the statutory scheme is to “define and simplify” landlord-tenant law in Arizona and to encourage both sides to maintain quality housing.  As such, the remedies concern property interests such as possession and repair not personal injury.

Second, the Court found that a negligence per se instruction is inappropriate where a statute provides only a “general standard of care,” rather than “certain or specific” prohibited acts—regardless of whether the duty imposed is a positive one.  Because § 33-1324(A)(2)’s requirement that a landlord make and keep the premises fit and habitable is a general standard of care, the tenant’s request for the instruction was properly denied.  The Court gave a clarifying example that a statute requiring cars to be safely maintained represents a general standard of care, while a statute making it unlawful to disobey traffic signs represents a specific, prohibited act.

For these reasons, the Court found no error by the trial judge and affirmed the judgment.

Presiding Judge Thumma delivered the decision, in which Judge Howe and Chief Judge Swann joined.

Posted by: Payslie Bowman

Posted On: 7/27/2020