Can I Sue My Landlord for Asbestos?
By Robert Rafii, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Steven J. Ellison, Esq. | Last reviewed May 02, 2023
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While the presence of asbestos might not be enough on its own, you can sue your landlord if they knowingly or negligently failed to disclose its existence and you suffered from asbestos exposure.
It is not unusual for an older rental property to contain asbestos fibers. In fact, many homes built between the 1930s and 1970s used asbestos for roofing, floor tiles, insulation, drywall, and patching. It wasn't until 1977 that these uses were banned.
If you have developed health problems or are concerned about health risks relating to asbestos-containing materials in your rental unit, you can discuss your legal options with an asbestos lawyer.
In new constructions, asbestos has been nearly banned thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1970 which is implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Moreover, asbestos regulations are pretty strict about proper methods for asbestos removal, and states have enacted strong landlord-tenant laws which:
- Set landlord liability for illegal asbestos exposure
- Place a legal obligation on landlords to remove or safely maintain asbestos
A property owner who manages older buildings should expect that asbestos may have been used in their construction materials and may need to conduct regular inspections by asbestos professionals to prevent potential harm to tenants.
If asbestos is left undisturbed, it might not necessarily be a health risk. However, it becomes a problem when walls start to chip away or floor or ceiling tiles start to fall off, because then the asbestos fibers can be exposed. Improper renovations can also disturb underlying asbestos that may have otherwise been harmless. Even a small amount of dust uncovered by a building's deterioration can cause asbestos to spread into the air and into your lungs.
Being around asbestos or inhaling its fibers can cause many health issues, including:
- asbestosis (scarring of lung tissue)
- mesothelioma (an aggressive type of lung cancer)
If you suspect that you may have been exposed to asbestos as a result of your landlord's bad behavior, you may sue for:
- breach of the lease contract
- breach of the implied warranty of habitability
Your state or municipality may also have local laws that are specifically designed to protect renters, so you may want to file complaints with your local Housing Department and Public Health Agency alongside filing your lawsuit.
Suing for Breach of the Rental Agreement
A lease agreement for residential real estate will usually contain language about the cleanliness, safety, and good condition of the premises. Most of the time, however, the contract will make it sound like it's the tenant's responsibility to keep the rental premises that way.
But if the tenant is required to keep the unit in good condition, then the landlord is promising that the rental unit is being given to the tenant in good condition to begin with. In fact, just about every state will require that any residential housing unit that is offered for rent be in habitable condition.
So if the contract says you have to pay the landlord rent every month, then that payment is dependent on the landlord's ability to keep the premises habitable (unless they were made uninhabitable as a result of a tenant's own fault).
State law will usually prohibit a landlord from delivering possession of rental premises to a tenant in an unsafe condition. Even if the rental agreement has disclaimers saying that the unit is being rented to you “as is," the landlord must still meet the minimum health and safety regulations that make a rental dwelling livable.
In general, these are the legal elements you must show to prove that a breach of contract has occurred:
- a valid lease contract existed;
- you've performed your obligations under the contract, which generally means you've been paying your rent on time and you haven't caused destruction or damage to the premises;
- the landlord has breached the contract by failing to perform their duty to provide the safe and livable premises that they promised to you under the lease agreement; and
- damages (losses to you in the form of rent and payment to medical professionals for asbestos-related diseases).
For example, a lease contract might have an “abatement" clause which means that the tenant can deduct (abate) rent for any portion of the rental unit that becomes unlivable. So if your kitchen ceiling starts to leak and asbestos fibers are exposed from corrosion, the landlord may be in breach of the lease agreement if they continue to insist on the entire rent.
Suing for Breach of the Implied Warranty of Habitability
It doesn't matter if the rental agreement has disclaimers regarding dangerous conditions. The implied warranty of habitability, which is recognized by nearly all 50 states, is a legal requirement that a rental housing unit should be suitable for its intended purpose of being livable.
While state laws vary, in general, you have to show three things:
- A bad condition that makes the rental unit uninhabitable
- The landlord's actual (or reasonably required) knowledge of the dangerous condition
For example, let's say your landlord knows that the rental unit was built in the 1960s and contains asbestos building materials. The kitchen has old linoleum and plastic floor tiles that are coming apart, so you share your concerns with your landlord.
It's reasonable for old linoleum tiles to contain asbestos, and it's also reasonable that your landlord should know about this given their knowledge of the building's history. Therefore, any illness you face would count as damages that are recoverable under a claim for the implied warranty of habitability, because providing habitable premises is part of the landlord's responsibilities to you.
Suing for Negligence
If a landlord has been careless, you may also be able to sue them for negligence. Examples of carelessness include:
- Your landlord should have reasonably known that an old building had asbestos but denied its existence when you asked about it before moving in.
- Your landlord knew about the asbestos but forgot to warn you about its presence.
- Your landlord did renovations to remove the asbestos but didn't take proper steps to remove the toxic materials properly and exposed you to dangerous asbestos fibers in the process.
Your negligence lawsuit will state:
- The landlord had a duty to take reasonable measures to prevent harm to you (as their tenant);
- They breached that duty by failing to warn you or to abate asbestos inside the rental unit;
- You were injured as a result of asbestos exposure; and
- You suffered damages, such as wasted rent, personal injuries, and medical expenses.
If you win your lawsuit against a landlord, the court may award you any one or more of the following remedies:
- Compensatory damages — This includes rent illegally collected by the landlord while the rental premises were uninhabitable, your medical expenses for illness and personal injuries related to asbestos exposure, and any other lost money and pain/suffering that you can reasonably attribute to the landlord's wrongdoing.
- Statutory damages — These are flat damages that some states might award for every violation committed by a landlord. For example, local building safety codes or healthy codes that are violated can subject your landlord to statutory damages per each violation.
- Punitive damages — These are intended to punish a landlord that acts with malice or fraud and to deter other landlords from engaging in similar egregious misconduct. For example, if the landlord knew your premises contained exposed asbestos and lied to you about it, a court might order punitive damages against them.
- Court costs and attorney's fees — Money you spent on court filing fees and attorney billing may be recoverable in some circumstances, especially if the lease agreement says that a winner of any dispute may collect costs and fees from the loser.
Consult With An Asbestos or Mesothelioma Lawyer
If you or a loved one have been suffering from asbestos-related illnesses or you're weighing your options on how to handle asbestos at your rental unit, you should obtain legal advice from an asbestos attorney or mesothelioma lawyer.
An attorney can help you take legal action to ensure that you are living in a safe home free of health hazards. If you've already been damaged because of asbestos, a lawyer may be able to help you recover medical expenses, rent paid, and more.
Since asbestos lawyers deal in personal injury, they may be able to take your case on a contingency basis. This means you won't have to pay anything unless you win a settlement or a judgment against your landlord.
Contact a qualified attorney to help you navigate the challenges presented by litigation.