Who Bears Legal Responsibility for Unattended Death Cleanup at a Rented Residence?

A truly traumatic circumstance is the unattended death of person in his or her home. Not only is the loss itself a keenly emotional experience for a deceased person’s loved one, the aftermath of this type of death can be fraught with a multitude of challenges, including legal ones. A key legal dilemma can arise from who bears legal responsibility for an unattended death cleanup of a rented residence?

What is an Unattended Death?

In fundamental terms, an unattended death is one in which a person dies in some manner and his or her remains are not promptly discovered. Indeed, days, weeks, or even months can pass before a body is discovered. For example, a person may live alone in a rented house or apartment and one learns of the death for some time after the passing. An unattended death is also referred to as an undiscovered death.

Type of Unattended Deaths

In order to ascertain whether landlord or tenant (or tenant’s estate) bears responsibility for unattended death cleanup, the actual manner of death comes into play. The most common types of unattended deaths include:

  • Accident
  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Death by disease
  • Death by sudden medical issue

The Legal Starting Point: The Standard Division of Legal Responsibilities Between Landlords and Tenants in California

Pursuant to California landlord and tenant laws, a tenant typically bears responsibility for extraordinary damage caused to the premises as a result of that individual’s residence. For example, if a wall in rental property is damaged by a visitor a tenant had in the premises, the tenant would bear responsibility for that damage. By extension, if an event occurs in the rental premises that truly is beyond the control of a landlord, like the unattended death of a tenant, technical legal responsibility for the cleanup would not initially rest solely with the landlord.

The one exception to the landlord not technically being legally directly responsible for unattended death cleanup in the first instance possibly would be if the death was the result of criminal activity. If an argument could be made that lax or inappropriate common space security directly lead to a tenant’s death, legal responsibility for the cleanup would rest with the landlord in the first instance.

California Landlord and Tenant Provisions Regarding Quiet Enjoyment

Although a landlord may not technically have an initial legal responsibility to bear the costs for an unattended death cleanup in a rental unit because of the basic tenants of the landlord-renter relationship, another provision of California law would implicate a landlord’s frontline responsibility. This is based on provisions in California landlord and tenant law as they pertain to what legally is known as “quiet enjoyment.”

In simple terms, quiet enjoyment means that a landlord does have a legal responsibility to ensure that property he or she owns is used in a manner that doesn’t interfere with the ability of neighbors to peacefully and appropriately enjoy their own homes. The fact that an unattended occurred, and with the horrific consequences of human decomposition (among other factors), the ability of neighbors to quietly enjoy their own homes without improper interference becomes a very real issue. The failure of a landlord to take prompt steps to address an unattended death cleanup exposes a landlord to legal liability on the part of neighbors.

Cause of Action Against an Estate

If a tenant died with some assets, a landlord would have the legal ability to take action against an estate for recovery of the costs associated with death scene cleanup. In addition, provided a formal estate is promptly set up following the discovery of an unattended death of a tenant with assets (which is possible, but not likely), a landlord might be able to avail upon an executor or personal representative of that estate to address the unattended death cleanup directly.

As an aside, there are instances in which family members of a person who dies an unattended death will take on the responsibility for seeing that cleanup occurs. Although this might happen, keep in mind that the death of a tenant was not discovered for some time. This is indicative of a person who either doesn’t have close family members or lacked a meaningful connection with them during his or her life.

Preventing Further Damage to Premises

When a landlord becomes aware of an unattended death in rental property, he or she has an immediate legal obligation to prevent further damage to the premises because of the circumstances that exist following that type of passing. The human decomposition process can take a serious and permanent toll on the death scene if appropriate remediation doesn’t occur in a timely manner. A landlord has a legal responsibility for bringing this deterioration and ongoing damage to an end.

The Bottom Line

In the final analysis, a landlord may not have frontline legal responsibility for the costs and other issues associated with an unattended death cleanup. Nevertheless, a landlord may have a secondary level of legal responsibility beyond the standard duties directly owed to a tenant. Moreover, a landlord has a legal duty to prevent further deterioration of rental property when an unattended death is discovered.

Finally, as a practical matter, a landlord likely needs to proceed immediately to arrange for unattended death cleanup whether or not there is any specific immediate primary legal responsibility to do so. In the end, the landlord owns the property and the premises must be protected and returned to a livable and rentable state as soon as possible.