Merrill v. Jansma and Its Effects on You
Believe it or not, landlord/tenant law in the United States and in Wyoming dates back centuries to feudal England. Under the common law of England, which was adopted in this country, a lease was considered a conveyance of an estate in real property and it carried with it the doctrine of "renter beware." A landlord was immune from being held legally responsible for any injuries that occurred to a tenant or a guest on the rental property.
Over the course of the centuries, exceptions to this strict no-landlord-liability-for-injuries doctrine were recognized by various courts, including Wyoming's Supreme Court, and/or statutes. Up until March 17, 2004, Wyoming had recognized five such judicially created exceptions to the common law rule: liability for defects in a rental leased for admission to the public, for a breach of a covenant to repair, for negligent repairs, for defects in "common areas" under the landlord's control, and for hidden dangerous conditions known to the landlord but unknown to the tenant.
On March 18, 2004, the earth moved, at least in the legal community, when the Wyoming Supreme Court issued a new unanimous opinion called Merrill v. Jansma. In it the Court, by interpreting the 1999 Wyoming Residential Rental Property Act, swept away the ancient common law rule of landlord immunity for injuries and its exceptions and joined the majority of states that have imposed a new duty on landlords to maintain rental property in a safe, sanitary and habitable condition.
The Merrill v. Jansma opinion is 20 plus pages long and like most court opinions, it is not quite as black and white as the above paragraph makes it sound. But for tenants in Wyoming, it is an historic case and a victory for renters for the Court said very clearly that if landlords ignore the condition of their rental units they put themselves at risk if an injury occurs. The case can be accessed directly below.
Like always, a warning is necessary: students should not presume that the new opinion means that if a landlord does not repair something, they can automatically walk away from their leases. The information contained in this section is meant to be general in nature and it is not meant as a substitute for specific legal advice or answers to legal questions about a landlord/tenant problem. It is highly recommended that you consult with an attorney licensed in Wyoming before considering or taking any action based upon the information above about the new Wyoming opinion. All ASUW fee-paying students qualify for the free services of the Students' Attorney Program.