The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a compensatory damage award of $20,000 to the parents of an adult daughter who was sickened by mold growing in her apartment after finding the facts of the case don’t support the amount awarded.
Brittany Murphy and her father, Kendall Murphy, signed a lease for Brittany Murphy to live in an apartment in Marshall County while she attended Ancilla College and played basketball for the school. Her friend, Jay Frazier, also enrolled in the school and they decided to live together, although Frazier did not pay any rent or sign the lease. Brittany Murphy paid rent with the help of her parents.
The two leased an apartment that is below-grade and requires a dehumidifier to remove moisture. The lease includes a mold clause that says Hi-Tec as lessor had no personal responsibility for personal injury or property damages as a result of mold and the lessees agreed to save harmless Hi-Tech for personal injury, suffering, etc.
After living in the apartment for a few weeks, Brittany Murphy and Frazier became ill and their asthma was aggravated. Brittany Murphy even had trouble playing basketball. They discovered mold and contacted Hi-Tec. The company moved them into an above-grade apartment.
Brittany Murphy; her parents, Kendall and Lorie Murphy; and Jay Frazier sued Hi-Tec alleging negligence, fraud and breach of contract. They alleged the company knew the apartment had previous issues with mold when renting it to Brittany Murphy and Frazier. The trial court ruled the exculpatory clause contained in the lease immunizing the company against liability for injuries caused by mold was void as against public policy. The jury found Hi-Tech 100 percent at fault and awarded Brittany Murphy and her parents $10,000 each in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages for Brittany Murphy. Frazier received no compensatory damages.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s finding that the exculpatory clause was void, noting the clause is inconsistent with common-law principles of tort law that a landlord may be held liable for personal injuries caused by latent defects known to the landlord but unknown to the tenant and which the landlord fails to disclose.
The judges affirmed the amount of damages awarded to Brittany Murphy, but reversed the amount her parents are entitled to receive. Kendall Murphy is only entitled to $2,360, the amount he paid in rent to Hi-Tec on the apartment. And there’s no evidence that Kendall and Lorie suffered any damages as a result of Hi-Tech’s alleged fraud or negligence. Lorie Murphy did not sign the lease and did not live there, so she is not entitled to any damages.
The case, Hi-Tec Properties, LLC v. Brittany Murphy, Kendall Murphy, Lorie Murphy, and Jay Frazier, 50A05-1401-CT-14, is remanded for further proceedings.