One of the most challenging situations involving biohazardous contamination is the aftermath of what technically is known as an unattended death. In basic terms, an unattended death involves a situation in which a person dies alone for one reason or another. The deceased individual’s remains aren’t found for a period of time that may equate to a number of days, weeks, or even months. 

As a result of the human decomposition process, a powerful stench begins to develop within a few days following an unattended death. The human decomposition process commences directly at the point of death. Within a couple of days, decomposition becomes evident, including in regard to visual signs and ever-increasing foul odor. 

When an unattended death occurs in a unit of a multifamily apartment building, in time neighboring tenants can find themselves facing a significant issue with foul smells infiltrating their own residences and building common areas. These neighbors understandably find themselves with important questions about addressing the disturbing, even overwhelming stench associated with an unattended death.

There are four primary considerations to consider when it comes to the rights of a tenant when his or her unit is impacted by an unattended death in a neighboring unit:

  • Dynamics of an unattended death
  • Doctrine of quiet enjoyment
  • What a tenant can do when an apartment is impacted by a stench from a neighboring unit
  • What a tenant can do when a stench impacts building common areas

Dynamics of an Unattended Death

In order to understand how horrific the aftermath of an unattended death can be for residents living in a multiunit apartment building, we need to have a frank discussion of the human decomposition process. The stark reality is that the human decomposition process starts directly at the moment of death. When blood stops flowing throughout the body, decomposition commences.

Blood is the conduit for nutrients throughout the body, including to what people commonly call “good bacteria.” Most of these good bacteria lives in a person’s “gut.” Medically, the area in which most of the good bacteria is found when a person is alive is in the intestines and the pancreas. With no nutrients from blood, the good bacteria turns to the body itself, beginning with the organs just mentioned.

Within a matter of two to three days, the bacteria will have consumed these organs, causing their outer walls to burst. At this point, the bacteria flood the rest of the body, destroying organs in the same manner in which they took on the intestines and pancreas. At this juncture, decomposition becomes evident on the surface of the body itself.

The odors of decomposition – a truly foul stench – begin to release from the body, initially through existing “holes” in the remains. Ultimately, the skin deteriorates, resulting in even a more significant release of liquids and gases.

When a death is undiscovered, nothing interrupts the rate of decomposition like embalming or the placement of the remains in refrigeration. The stench overwhelms the immediate apartment where the undiscovered remains are located. In time, the very real possibility exists that the stench will spread into other areas of an apartment building, including common areas and other apartments. 

You need to bear in mind that the gases that emit from a body during the human decomposition process can be so profound that they are capable of permeating objects and even certain types of surfaces. While removing the body is a vital step in remediating decomposition odors, that alone is not enough to eradicate odors associated with the decomposition of a previously undiscovered body. The only sure way to accomplish this is via professional unattended death cleaning and sanitization provided by an experienced biohazard remediation company. 

Doctrine of Quiet Enjoyment

The rights of a tenant in a multifamily apartment building when it comes to a situation in which a stench associated with an unattended death in another unit are governed by a legal doctrine known a quiet enjoyment. The doctrine of quiet enjoyment means that a tenant in a multiunit apartment building has the legal right to enjoy the full use of his or her apartment without interference from another unit. For example, in the case of an unattended death, a tenant in another unit has the right to not have the enjoyment of his or her apartment impaired by a stench emitting from the site of the undiscovered death.

Based on the doctrine of quiet enjoyment, a landlord in a multiunit building has the legal obligation to ensure that the aftermath of an unattended death is thoroughly remediated in a timely manner. In a situation involving an unattended death, there is likely to be no other person associated with the deceased tenant with a legal obligation to clean and disinfect the premises. Thus, the obligation falls squarely in the hands of the landlord or owner of the apartment building. 

What a Tenant Can Do When an Apartment Is Impacted by a Stench From Neighboring Unit

A tenant facing the viciously foul odors associated with an unattended death in another apartment in a shared building faces two challenges in dealing that stench. First, there is the matter of eradicating the stench itself. Second, there is the matter of a tenant’s legal rights to compel a landlord to take appropriate action to adequately address the aftermath of an unattended death, including a yet unabated stench. 

Make a Written Request to the Landlord to Promptly Remediate the Problem

The reality exists that a tenant in the building where an undiscovered death occurred in another apartment is apt to be the first person to lead the landlord to the fact that something is amiss. The odors of decomposition may invade common areas or another tenant’s apartment, resulting in a report to the landlord or property manager. By notifying a landlord or property manager in writing of the issue, you’ve evidence that such a notification was made. 

Because of the nature of a human decomposition stench, you should spell out that the odor is making it impossible for you to enjoy the full use of your apartment. Set a specific deadline by which the landlord or property manager needs to eradicate the odor. 

Attempt to Hire a Biohazard Cleaning Company and Withhold Money From Rent

If a landlord is dilatory in addressing the stench associated with an unattended death arising from another unit in an apartment building, in certain circumstances you might be able to “take matters into your own hands,” at least to some degree. For example, if the site of the death was in some sort of common area (the basement of a building where people store property), a tenant might have some level of access to the area. 

If more than a reasonable amount of time has passed since initially advising the landlord of the need to remediate a severe stench, a tenant could advise the landlord that the renter will contact a professional biohazard remediation service to address a stench. A tenant could advise that he or she will deduct the cost of professional assistance from upcoming rent.

There are limitations to this type of action. A chief one is a tenant would not have access to the apartment where the odor issue arises. 

Withhold Rent Until the Situation Is Remediated

The possibility does exist that a residential tenant in a multiunit apartment building may be able to withhold rent when an unabated stench associated with an unattended death is not addressed with a landlord. A tenant can withhold rent when a situation exists that a landlord doesn’t promptly address a situation that involves a nuisance. A permeating odor associated with decomposing remains (even after the body itself is removed) is such a nuisance. 

Contact the Local Health Department or Building Department

A tenant unable to obtain prompt action from a landlord in remediating a stench associated with an unattended death can also contact the local health department or building department. These agencies have jurisdiction over issues in multifamily apartment buildings that impact health and safety. An invasive, permeating stench associated with a decomposing corpse fits into this category. 

File a Lawsuit

Failing to remedy the situation with the landlord, a tenant in this type of situation can also elect to pursue a lawsuit against the landlord. Due to the nature of a landlord dispute of this nature, as a renter impacted by this type of “nuisance,” you should be able to get before a judge in your county in a fairly quick speed. The Legal Aid Association of California has a lawyer directory through which you can find an attorney in your area versed in these types of matters. 


The profound nature of odors associated with a decomposing corpse is so extreme that when a landlord fails to appropriately remediate such a stench, a tenant likely has the ability to move without legal repercussions. In other words, a tenant can move without being in jeopardy of “breaking the lease.”  

A tenant definitely has rights to be asserted in a situation involving the aftermath of an unattended death that occurs in an apartment building. In addition to understanding your legal rights as a tenant in this type of situation, you must bear in mind that professional assistance is needed to appropriately address the unique challenges presented as the result of the human decomposition process.