Virginia Supreme Court Imposes Only Limited Duties on Owners for Short-Term Premises Rentals; Holds No Duty to Maintain a Safe Condition Applies to Areas Within the Renters’ Control

In an era of homeowners more frequently renting out their homes for short-term vacationers, the question of how to categorize the relationship between the homeowner and the renter has arisen. The Virginia Supreme Court recently evaluated that issue in Haynes-Garrett v. Dunn, No. 171055, 2018 Va. LEXIS 131 (Oct. 4, 2018), and held that, based on the facts it was presented, the homeowners only owed a duty of care that a landlord owes a tenant, thus finding that the homeowners had “no duty to maintain in a safe condition any part of the leased premises” under the renters’ “exclusive control.”  Had the Court found that the homeowners owed an innkeeper-guest duty of care, the “responsibility for the premises is primarily on the innkeeper, and the guests may generally assume they are safe.”  

In this case, the Dunns owned a vacation home in Virginia Beach that they would rent out during the peak summer season through a property management company. The Dunns lived in Northern Virginia and would use the vacation home periodically throughout the year and intended to ultimately retire to it. When renting out the property, the property management company handled all of the arrangements, including providing linens to the renters upon their arrival and having it cleaned after each rental period ended. Per the property management agreement, the Dunns would not enter the home when it was occupied by renters.

The Plaintiff rented the home for use by her family for a one-week vacation. Soon after arriving in the home, she tripped on a “lip” or transition strip between a carpeted area and a tiled area on the first floor, resulting in a fall and injury to her elbow. She later filed suit against the Dunns and the property management company, contending that they were negligent in failing to “maintain the house’s floors in a safe and fit condition.” The circuit court granted the defendants’ motion to strike and entered judgment in their favor. The sole issue before the Virginia Supreme Court was whether the circuit court erred in ruling that the Dunns only owed Plaintiff a duty of care commensurate with that of landlord and tenant.

The Supreme Court examined the specific facts when evaluating the nature of the relationship between the Dunns and Plaintiff and which duty of care was thus applicable. The key factor was the extent to which the Dunns maintained possession and control over the premises during Plaintiff’s occupancy. Here, the Court found that the Dunns did not maintain a presence on the property like an innkeeper would–they lived in Northern Virginia, never entered the home during renters’ stays, and did not provide room service or daily maid service. Further, they did not hold the home out as a “public place” for the “accommodation for travelers.” Instead, they used the home as a vacation home to spend time with their own family and rented it out just during peak summer months, generally only to “families” (versus “a party house for college age kids”).

The Court also looked to the intent of the parties. Plaintiff similarly did not intend for the Dunns to have a presence in the home. Plaintiff rented it only for the period of occupancy, and she and her family had the “right of exclusive possession and enjoyment of the leased premises.” Consequently, the Court found that the relationship between the parties was one of landlord and tenant and not of innkeeper and guest. Therefore, the Dunns only owed a duty of care to Plaintiff that a landlord owes to a tenant, specifically “no duty to maintain a safe condition any part of the leased premises that is under a tenant’s exclusive control.” Judgment was thus affirmed as to the Dunns.

Given the proliferation of short-term rentals, this case is important in that it limits the duty of the homeowner. However, it should be noted that this opinion was fact-specific. The actions of the homeowners of this case more squarely fit in the category of landlord, and therefore, the Court found that their duty was limited. Homeowners considering renting out their vacation properties should be mindful of the Court’s analysis in this case and the factors it considered.

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