As of 2020, 36.6 percent of people in the United States reside in homes of different types that they rent. The majority of these rental residences are found in multiunit buildings of different types, including apartments, duplexes, condo buildings, and adjoining townhomes. As an aside, there are a number of communities in Southern California in which the majority of people are living in rented residences. 

The point in detailing this information is that what occurs in one residence can have a direct, persistent, and pervasive impact on adjoining units. One of the most horrific examples of this type of situation is when a resident living alone in a unit dies, the death not being discovered for a more extended period of time. While not trying to be glib, the impact on a neighboring residence can raise the specter of a horror movie.

The Case of Marilyn: The Invasion of Her Home by Untenable Odors

Marilyn lives in am multiunit apartment building in Southern California. She lives alone, works hard, is engaged in the community, and considers her home her retreat from an active life. Her neighbor was an elderly woman who lived alone. Unfortunately, the elderly neighbor had ongoing issues with cleanliness in her apartment. Odors coming from her unit were commonplace and continuous. 

Garbage accumulated inside the neighbor’s apartment, including rotting food leftovers. There was also some talk that she was a hoarder. She didn’t seem to leave her apartment often and visitors were not frequent. She did have a daughter that stopped by to see the woman every once in a while.

Not long ago, the elderly woman died in her apartment. Her remains were not discovered for a week when her daughter happened to come by for a visit. Because of the odors already flowing from the apartment, those associated with the decomposing remains did not immediately standout.

When the woman’s remains were removed from the apartment, the landlord made no move to cleanup the biological waste that was left in the unit. He made no effort to cleanup and remove other types of moldering waste in the apartment. As a result, the stench invading Marilyn’s apartment from the unit where the unattended death or undiscovered death became increasingly more intense. 

Marilyn’s ability to fully enjoy the complete use of her apartment was impaired for a period of time before the neighboring woman died. As days passed from the discovery of the remains, life in Marilyn’s apartment became virtually untenable because of the failure of the landlord to take appropriate action to thoroughly remediate the biohazardous waste in the neighboring apartment.

Marilyn was relentless in pressing the landlord to have the apartment where the unattended death occurred appropriately subjected to a biohazard cleanup. Ultimately, the landlord paid lip service to Marilyn and said he would take care of the situation.

A week after the landlord advised he would address this very real problem, what was purported to be a “professional” cleaning company appeared at the apartment of the deceased woman. Real questions have now arisen as to whether the company hired by the landlord to address the issue of unattended death cleanup and biohazard remediation was qualified for this endeavor.

During the cleanup process, the stench in Marilyn’s unit intensified because malodorous air was being forced from the deceased woman’s apartment into her own during the “cleaning” process. The fact is that the venting of foul air into a neighbor’s apartment home would not occur if an experienced biohazard cleaning company was at the helm. 

Worse yet, after the so-called cleanup process was completed, the odor flowing into Marilyn’s home from the adjacent contaminated apartment did not abate. Indeed, the situation grew far worse. 

The so-called cleanup company failed to appropriately remove biohazardous waste, including that associated with human decomposition. As a result, Marilyn was forced to contend with what fairly can be called hoards of flies invading her apartment. The cold, dark reality is that enough decomposing biomatter from human decomposition and other waste remained in the neighbor’s apartment to allow for flies to multiply in their initial form as maggots. 

Marilyn finds herself back at square one, attempting to get the landlord to take appropriate action to actually address the biohazard contamination in the neighboring apartment unit. With the festering problem reaching the two-week mark after the allegedly cleanup occurred, the landlord has done nothing to resolve the very real issue. He’s taken the stance of dismissing Marilyn’s very real concerns as being much ado about nothing. 

Marilyn understandably reports that what fairly can be categorized as a traumatic situation for her (that shows no sign of ending any time soon because of the inaction of the landlord) has resulted in her suffering from depression. Knowing that decomposing human remains were left a thin wall away from her for a week, coupled with the landlord’s ongoing failure to take appropriate action to have the contaminated space appropriately cleaned and sanitized, continues to take a significant toll on Marilyn. 

Does Continuous Exposure to a Stench in This Manner Present a Physical Health Risk?

As understandably hard as this can be to appreciate, the persistent exposure to the type of stench described by Marilyn is not likely to in and of itself cause some sort of new physical health problem. Yes, the odor is repellent. Yes, the odor can significantly impact the ability of Marilyn to enjoy the use of her home. However, at the concentration levels the odors reaching Marilyn’s apartment, no specific type of illness is at all likely. Technically and medically speaking, while these odors are coming from a biohazard, the odors themselves are not biohazardous. 

With this noted, persistent exposure to this type of foul stench potentially could aggravate a preexisting illness. If Marilyn was laboring under some sort of preexisting medical condition, the stench coming into her apartment potentially could make her health situation worse. For example, the foul odors could make it virtually impossible for Marilyn to relax in her home. She may have real issues trying to sleep. This reality may aggravate a health condition, perhaps significantly so. 

Does Ongoing Exposure to a Continuous Stench of This Nature Pose Emotional or Psychological Risks?

A comprehensive research study reported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health reveals that odors do have an impact on the emotional and psychological state of people. Odors emotionally and psychologically impact people in one of three ways:

A foul odor may have a direct negative impact on a person’s state of emotional or mental health.

A pleasant odor may have a direct positive impact on a person’s state of emotional or mental health.

An odor, foul or pleasant, may trigger an emotional or psychological response based on a person’s prior experiences.

The bottom line is that a foul odor, particularly one that persists over an extended period of time (particularly in a person’s home) can negatively impact an individual’s emotional wellbeing and mental health. Examples of these types of condition that can stem from exposure to the type of stench experienced by Marilyn include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD

Unfortunately, the longer-term exposure to a foul odor (like Marilyn continues to experience) can lead to a condition known as phantosmia. Phantosmia causes a person to smell an odor that actually is no longer present. In other words, Marilyn’s landlord may eventually address the biohazard and associated conditions in the neighbor’s apartment. Despite accomplishing this long overdue objective, Marilyn conceivably could then be faced with phantosmia, another emotional challenge arising out of the unattended death situation. 

Legal Duty of Landlord

In a multiunit rental situation, what is known as the doctrine of quiet enjoyment comes into play. This is also known as the covenant of quiet enjoyment because it is an implied term of any residential lease, whether specifically stated or not.

Under this doctrine, a tenant like Marilyn has the legal right to enjoy the full use and enjoyment of her apartment without any type of unreasonable interference from a neighbor, neighboring unit, or the landlord. In the situation described in Marilyn’s case study, the doctrine of quiet enjoyment requires the landlord to appropriately ensure that effective unattended death and biohazard remediation occurs. 

The failure of the landlord to appropriately rectify the biohazardous contamination and related situation in the neighboring apartment lays the groundwork upon which a tenant like Marilyn can assert certain legal rights. A landlord and tenant attorney can assist a person in Marilyn’s position in understanding what legal steps might be most advisable in this type of situation. 

In every state in the U.S.A. there are organizations that exist to protect and advance the rights of tenants, including in California. An example of such an organization in California is Tenants Together