Propst v. McNeill: Arkansas Landlord-Tenant Law, A Time for Change

November 01, 1998

* The case note was cited by the Arkansas Supreme Court in Thomas v. Stewart, 60 S.W.3d 415 (Ark. 2001) (Brown, J., concurring)
 
Introduction
In November of 1996, the Arkansas Supreme Court refused to impose tort liability on a landlord for damage to a tenant's property located on the leased premises.   The court indicated that it has no intention of budging from the rule in Arkansas that "unless a landlord agrees with his tenant to repair leased premises, he cannot, in the absence of statute, be compelled to do so or be held liable for repairs."   A landlord in Arkansas, then, has no duty to keep the leased premises in good repair, and, as a result, the landlord cannot be held liable in tort for damages if the tenant, or his property, were injured due to the landlord's failure to repair a defect.
 
This rule is based upon the common law doctrine of caveat lessee, meaning "lessee beware."   The doctrine stands for the proposition that the lessee, rather than the landlord, bears the duty to inspect the premises fully before entering into the lease agreement, and therefore is charged with having knowledge of the conditions of the property at the time of the agreement.  Essentially, the tenant takes the property "as is" and the landlord owes no further duty to repair the premises.  This doctrine grew out of the common law approach that viewed a lease as a conveyance, or sale of the property, for the lease period as opposed to a contract of mutual rights and obligations between the parties.
 
Though Arkansas began to follow this rule over a hundred years ago,  the rule was formulated in Feudal England.  The rationale underlying the old common law doctrine has long since disappeared.  Virtually every other jurisdiction in the United States, either by legislation, judicial decision, or both, has eliminated or dramatically curtailed caveat lessee, providing greater protections for tenants.   This case note will argue that it is time for Arkansas to do the same.
 
After discussing the Propst case and the court's decision not to depart from the traditional common law rule, this case note will survey the recent erosion of caveat lessee in other jurisdictions and put Arkansas's adherence to the common law doctrine in full perspective.  Finally, this case note will analyze the Propst decision in light of these developments and argue that the Arkansas Supreme Court should have taken steps to reform Arkansas landlord-tenant law.

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