Commercial tenants are often perplexed when they realize that under the terms of their lease, they are responsible for damages that occur on the leased premises even if caused by the landlord’s own negligence. In most cases, the landlord’s liability for just about any scenario is limited to gross negligence and willful misconduct. Landlords typically insist that all liability shift to tenants because tenants have control over the leased premises. Tenants are then required to adequately insure against all liabilities whether or not it’s the landlord’s fault. The idea that tenants should be responsible for a landlord’s negligence seems counter intuitive. Landlord’s simply argue that they do not want to get caught up in battles over who may or may not be negligent. In their view, the simpler solution is for tenant’s to indemnify landlords for all liabilities while maintaining adequate insurance coverage (including insurance covering the landlord’s negligence). Whether or not one buys into the argument, the practical reality is that most landlords in California will insist on indemnification clauses requiring tenants to defend, indemnify and hold landlords harmless except in cases of the landlord’s gross negligence or willful misconduct. As a practical matter, excepting gross negligence and willful misconduct from indemnification clauses is not problematic for landlords because under California law they are already unable to contractually shift liability for their own gross negligence or willful misconduct. Willful misconduct is intentional misconduct. But what is “gross negligence”?
In layman’s terms, negligence is often referred to as carelessness. In legal terms it refers to the failure to meet an accepted standard of conduct. For example, a surgeon that accidentally leaves a sponge in a patient would clearly be careless thereby breaching the “standard of care” expected from surgeons generally. Gross negligence refers to a level of negligence that is greater than standard negligence but falls short of an intentional act to harm. Leaving the sponge in the patient on purpose because the surgeon didn’t like the patient’s constant complaining would be an intentional act. In California, gross negligence is defined as misconduct that demonstrates either a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. Gross negligence falls somewhere between a careless accident and an intentional act. Perhaps a nurse reminded the surgeon twice that the sponge was still in the patient but the surgeon decided to respond to a text message. Being warned about the sponge and texting while operating reflects a more careless act and in this case arguably rises to the level of gross negligence. Defining the contours of what is and what isn’t gross negligence however is easier said than done. Proving gross negligence then, at least in California, depends on making a factual determination as to what is scant care and/or an extreme departure. This is a highly subjective standard. The finder of fact (the jury in most cases) is tasked with determining what the standard of care is and then what level beyond this standard rises to gross negligence. In short, proving gross negligence is difficult in almost any circumstance.
To learn more about landlord liability and indemnification clauses, contact a San Diego commercial lease lawyer today.