Law School Case Brief
McCutcheon v. United Homes Corp. - 79 Wash. 2d 443, 486 P.2d 1093 (1971)
An exculpatory clause for landlord negligence in a multifamily dwelling complex contravenes long established common law rules of tort liability that exist in the landlord-tenant relationship. If the exculpatory clause is employed, it offends the public policy of the state and will not be enforced by the courts.
Plaintiffs Norma McCutcheon and Douglas R. Fuller were tenants of defendant United Homes Corporation ("United"). McCutcheon was injured when she fell down an unlighted flight of stairs leading from her apartment. Fuller was injured as he descended the outside stairs of his apartment on his way to work. A step pulled loose causing him to fall. Plaintiffs filed separate negligence actions against United in Washington state court. United's answer alleged that each plaintiff had executed a form rental agreement that contained an exculpatory clause, which relieved United of liability for any injuries sustained by its lessees and certain others. In each case the trial court granted a summary judgment of dismissal. Plaintiffs appealed, and the court appeals affirmed the trial court's judgments. The state supreme court granted plaintiffs' petitions for review and consolidated the cases for appeal.
Was the exculpatory clause in the parties' rental agreements valid and enforceable so as to bar plaintiffs' negligence actions?
The state supreme court reversed the trial court's judgments and remanded the cases for trial. The court held that, based on the modern landlord-tenant relationship in multi-family units, what was once solely a personal and private affair of two parties on equal footings was now a matter of public interest, and as such a landlord could not hide behind an exculpatory clause. It made little sense, the court reasoned, for the courts to insist, on the one hand, that a workman have a safe place in which to work, but, on the other hand, to deny him a reasonably safe place in which to live.
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