If you are being overrun with mice in your rental home (or at least see pretty clear evidence of mice invading your place) and your landlord doesn’t seem to care, you may be wondering whether you can sue your landlord for this infestation.
It’s a legitimate and important question. After all, mice can carry disease and cause illness if they are not addressed promptly.
In this article, I am going to answer this question and also provide helpful tips on what you can do when faced with this situation, including the general process for litigating this matter, who you can turn to for assistance if you don’t know how to proceed, and much more.
If you don’t have the time to read through it all, here’s a short answer to the question:
As a general matter, you can sue your landlord for not fixing a mouse infestation if they are required to do so under your lease or under applicable laws, such as the warranty of habitability. In most cases, you will need to show that you didn’t cause the infestation, your landlord had a chance to fix it but did not, and you suffered damages as a result.
Ok, we’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get into it.
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When Can I Sue My Landlord for a Mouse Infestation?
So, we know that in certain situations you can legitimately sue your landlord for a mouse infestation, but the real question is when that is possible.
Your Lease Will Likely Cover Pest Issues, So Check That First
If you are faced with a mouse problem, the first thing you should do is read your lease carefully. In many cases, it will spell out in detail what happens in the event of pest infestation (which typically includes mice, cockroaches, ants and the like).
In my lease, the tenant is responsible for controlling and eliminating household pests during occupancy, including but not limited to fleas, ticks, bed bugs, roaches, silverfish, ants, crickets, and rodents.
But my lease is for a garden style condo that is individually owned and has relatively few units that are connected.
In an apartment, it is harder to put the responsibility on a single tenant because everyone’s packed in and it is easy for mice and other pests to travel between units. For this reason, many apartment leases will indicate that the landlord is responsible for eliminating rodents.
Bottom line: Check your lease and figure out who has the burden of removing mice from the premises. If your landlord is responsible and they fail to follow through on their obligation, then you can likely file a suit for breach of contract (provided you meet the other requirements for such a lawsuit, which will probably include existence of a valid lease and damages arising from the breach).
In some cases, even if the lease is silent on the issue or states that you are responsible for remediating the mouse infestation, state and local laws may protect you. Let’s turn to that.
Check State and Local Laws
Different states will have different laws regarding pest invasions and who is responsible for fixing them. But as a general matter, most states adopt the implied warranty of habitability. Source
This is basically a promise by the landlord to the tenant (even if it’s not in the lease) that they will provide a habitable (i.e., livable) dwelling for their use. In many cases, a severe pest infestation could rise to the level of a breach of the implied warranty of habitability.
I know this all sounds pretty theoretical, so let’s look at how a number of major jurisdictions deal with the issue of mouse infestations.
Tenants have the right to a habitable, safe, and sanitary apartment under New York State landlord-tenant regulations, and every contract contains an implied promise of habitability. Any clause in a lease that renounces this right is void.
Examples of a breach of this warranty include failing to regularly provide heat or hot water or failing to get rid of an infestation in an apartment. Source
New York City has an even clearer standard. The Indoor Allergy Hazards Law mandates that all landlords with three or more units keep their facilities free of mold and vermin. Also, they must carry out annual inspections and quickly eliminate infestations.
California adopts a similar approach when it comes to rodent infestations. They make it the responsibility of the landlord to provide a tenantable dwelling, which includes providing a dwelling that is clean, sanitary, and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin. Source
Now it’s worth mentioning that almost all jurisdictions that impose the responsibility on the landlord have some sort of provision that excuses responsibility if the tenant is at fault for the infestation.
And yes, that includes hyper-tenant friendly California as well, which states that the landlord is excused if the tenant does not keep their premises in a clean and sanitary condition and does not properly dispose of garbage in a clean and sanitary manner. Source
States like Virginia, in contrast, have much more landlord-friendly laws.
According to the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act, it is the tenant’s duty to keep their home free of insects and other pests and to quickly notify the landlord of any such presence. Source
So, the first step is to figure out what your state and local laws have to say on this issue.
For your convenience, here’s our 50 state reference table (including D.C.) that will link you to the official landlord tenant laws of your state.
Obviously navigating these laws can be challenging. I know it makes my head hurt.
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So What’s the Process?
Notify Your Landlord
Once you have determined that you have some sort of contractual or legal right to have your landlord resolve your mouse infestation, you should contact them in writing to lay out your concerns and to ask for them to fix the issue.
Your lease may spell out the proper channels for providing this type of notice, or you can check your landlord-tenant laws to see what constitutes proper notice.
At this point, you can provide photographs and any other evidence of the infestation. Be as thorough as you can, so there’s no doubt that you gave your landlord adequate notice and an opportunity to cure.
Negotiate a Solution
Once your landlord receives this type of notice, they will likely reach out to you. If they agree to fix it, that’s great and exactly what you want.
If they disagree with your view that they are responsible, you can try to work out a compromise with them if you are not 100% sure of your legal footing.
Maybe you can split the cost of extermination. If that doesn’t work, you can try self-help remedies, such as mouse traps and bait stations as cheaper alternatives to professional exterminators.
File a Claim
If negotiations break down, you may have no choice but to seek legal remedies in court. In most cases, you will file a lawsuit in small claims court if your potential damages fall below the small claims maximum.
What are some damages that may arise in this context? They could include any personal property damage caused by the mice, any medical bills you have due to the infestation and even extermination costs associated with removing the mice.
Different jurisdictions have different procedures and rules around filing, so investigate what your local rules are. If you need help, there are often tenant rights associations that can walk you through the process.
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of a full blown lawsuit, you can also report the issue to your local housing authority. They can look into the claim and tell the landlord to fix the problem if they find that the landlord is to blame. They may also impose fees for code violations if they exist.
Can I Withhold Rent or Repair and Deduct If the Mouse Problem Persists?
A common question that renters have is whether they can withhold rent or pay for the extermination and apply it against their rent (often called “repair and deduct”).
The answer depends on your state and local laws. I know – I sound like a broken record here, but that’s just how this works.
In some cases (like Virginia), you can’t withhold rent, but if there is a breach of the warranty of habitability, you may be able to escrow your rent and the court can release it back to you if it turns out that your landlord was at fault.
Other states, like California, may permit such withholding and repair and deduct remedies under certain circumstances. Source
So there you have it – a clear answer to the question of whether you can sue your landlord due to a mouse infestation and some helpful tips on what to do if you are faced with this situation. Hope this has been helpful and happy renting!