A truly challenging situation arises when a person dies an unattended death in a condominium in a multiunit building. An unattended death is one in which a person dies alone and his or her remains are not discovered for a period of time. In the aftermath of an unattended death, the stench associated with human decomposition sometimes may be the first indication that this type of lonely death occurred. Indeed, the odor associated with human decomposition can persist for an extended period of time even after the remains have been removed.

A person living in a condominium near the unit where an unattended death occurred may experience a profound, pervasive, and persistent stench in the aftermath of this type of death. A condo resident does have some rights and strategies to employ when impacted by an unattended death in a neighboring unit.

Understanding the Aftermath of an Unattended Death

Understanding some basic facts associated with unattended death is important when a person faces an overwhelming stench invading a condominium in a multiunit structure in which someone died in another unit. A key fact to note is that human decomposition begins right when a person dies. Within a couple of days (on average) signs of decomposition become evident

This includes visual changes to the remains, including discoloration. It also means that malodorous gases will begin to release from the body. The stench will become more significant in very short speed; indeed, the stench will become overpowering in a matter of days and very well may begin to spread from beyond the unit where a person died and the remains were not discovered in a timely manner. 

Six gases are most prevalent in cases of human decomposition, although there are many more emitted in the process:

  • Cadaverine
  • Putrescine 
  • Skatole 
  • Indole 
  • Hydrogen sulfide 
  • Methanethiol 
  • Dimethyl disulfide
  • Dimethyl trisulfide 

Cadaverine and putrescine are by far the most common. The foul stench has been described as a revolting combination of rotten eggs, rotten fish, rotten cabbage, feces, mothballs, and garlic. The stench associated with death can be so severe, pervasive, and profound that it not only contaminates the air but inundates certain types of items it comes into contact with.  

Specific Tactics You to Use to Get Action to Resolve a Stench Coming From Neighboring Condo

Before diving deeper into specific tactics to resolve a stench from an unattended death coming from a condominium in a multiunit building, a legal point needs to be made. The available tactics are different if you are a condo owner or if you rent a unit in a multiunit building from someone else. A person facing a foul stench associated with an unattended death coming from another unit actually has more leverage and options if that individual is a renter. This fact will be elucidated more fully shortly. 

There are a trio of primary tactics that can be employed whether a person living in a condo is an owner or renter:

  • Contact the homeowner’s association
  • Contact the local health or building department
  • Pursue a lawsuit

Contact the Homeowner’s Association

Typically, a multiunit condo building will have a homeowner’s association or HOA. The HOA will undoubtedly have rules and regulations, including those associated with nuisances arising from a condo in the association that impacts other residents.

What an HOA can and cannot do in regard to remediating a stench coming from a unit where the occupant had died an unattended death depends significantly on the terms and conditions of the homeowner’s association agreement. With that said, an HOA is likely legally capable of proverbially “carrying the ball” and accessing legal and other resources that ultimately will result in an elimination of the invasive stench. In simple terms, an HOA likely will be in a position – and perhaps even a better one – to seek the types of redress that may be available to you independently as well. 

Contact the Local Health or Building Department

If relief cannot be obtained via a homeowner’s association, a condo owner in a building infiltrated with the stench of an unattended death can reach out to local governmental authorities, specifically the local health department or housing agency. One or another of these agencies is likely to be vested with the authority to take action when a nuisance exists. The horrific odor resulting from an unattended death is likely to be considered such a nuisance. 

Each California city and county has its own ordinances governing nuisances and the regulation of these situations. In other words, there is not a one-size fits all public agency remedy for all of the state. 

Pursue a Lawsuit

Finally, whether you are an owner or tenant in a condo in a multiunit building facing an insidious odor emanating from another unit due to the aftermath of an unattended death, you may be able to pursue a lawsuit. A tenant could bring a lawsuit against the landlord. In some situations, a condo owner might be able to pursue a lawsuit against the HOA.

In addition, a tenant or condo owner suffering the nuisance of a stench arising from an unattended death might be able to sue the estate of the deceased person who lived in the neighboring unit. In addition, if the deceased person was a tenant in that neighboring unit, a tenant or condo owner suffering from such a stench could be in a position to sue the owner of that individual unit. 

In addition to the three options available to a person residing in a condo as an owner or tenant, a renter has three additional available avenues when confronted with foul odors emitting from another unit in a building where an unattended death occurred:

  • Hire an unattended death cleaning company and deduct the cost from the rent
  • Withhold rent until the situation is remediated 
  • Move from the rented condominium 

Hire an Unattended Death Cleaning Company and Deduct Cost From Rent

If access to the contaminated condominium unit is possible, a tenant in a neighboring unit could retain the services of an unattended death cleaning company and front the costs for the professional service. California law would permit the tenant to pursue deducting the costs of that cleaning effort from rent. 

Withhold Rent Until Situation Is Remediated

A related strategy would set the stage for a tenant to withhold rent until the nuisance situation is remedied. This is based on a legal concept known as “quiet enjoyment.” A tenant is entitled to the quiet enjoyment of his or her premises. What that means is that an external situation like the stench associated with an unattended death rises to the level of a nuisance of a type that a tenant cannot fully and appropriately enjoy the use of his or her own unit. Indeed, a stench associated with human decomposition can be so profound and persistent that it can render a neighboring unit uninhabitable. 

Move From Rented Condominium 

The doctrine of quiet enjoyment might also provide a tenant impacted by the aftermath of an unattended death in another unit with the legal ability to terminate an existing lease without negative consequence. In other words, the failure to remediate the stench may provide a tenant with the legal ability to move from a rented condo in a multiunit building without being deemed to be in violation of an existing lease. 

There is no doubt that the aftermath of an unattended death in a multiunit condominium building can be challenging to a significant degree. With that said, there are some avenues potentially available to a person suffering from the persistent and pervasive stench associated with this type of death in many instances.