Takeaways from this recent Florida 4th DCA case:
- Landlord should have an property attorney draft a storage lease agreement, to ensure that the landlord is protected
- Lease agreement should include an exculpatory clause
- Landlord should not assume any responsibility to safeguard the tenant’s property
- Lease should require or recommend that the tenant procure rental insurance on his personal property
- Storage Unit leases are commercial in nature, not residential
- The terms and conditions of the agreement control
A recent Florida 4th DCA case addressed issues arising out of a storage unit rental agreement between the tenant and landlord, in Pillay v. Public Storage, Inc., 284 So.3d 566 (FL 4th DCA 2019). The facts giving rise to the action by the tenant against the landlord are as follows:
The tenant entered into a rental agreement with the landlord in 2000 to rent a storage unit. The tenant was absent for a long period of time after he moved to Maryland and didn’t return until 2015. While he was absent, the tenant’s property was damaged in the unit, the value for which he claims exceeded $100,000. The tenant claims that between 2005 and 2012, the landlord called him 3 separate times and informed him that his unit had been burglarized with several items left outside the unit.
When the tenant returned, he found the unit in disrepair and missing personal property. The tenant alleged that the landlord was uncooperative; yet, he entered into a new lease with the landlord and moved his items into another unit, 10 feet away.
In 2018, the tenant filed action against the landlord, alleging gross negligence and breach of contract. The trial court dismissed his complaint against the landlord, and the tenant appealed. The 4th DCA addressed two issues: (1) the landlord’s failure to safeguard the tenant’s property; and (2) the landlord’s failure to repair the unit.
(1) Whether the Landlord Has a Duty to Safeguard Tenant’s Property in a Storage Unit
The court ruled that the landlord did not have a duty to safeguard the tenant’s property and affirmed the dismissal of the tenant’s claim due to the express terms of their agreement, which contained the following exculpatory provisions:
“(1) ALL PERSONAL PROPERTY IS STORED BY OCCUPANT AT OCCUPANT’S SOLE RISK.
“(2) Owner and Owner’s agents … will not be responsible for, and Tenant releases Owner and Owner’s agents from any responsibility for, any loss, liability, claim, expense, damage to property … including without limitation any Loss arising from the active or passive acts, omission or negligence of Owner or Owner’s agents.
“(3) Tenant has inspected the Premises and the Property and hereby acknowledges and agrees that Owner does not represent or guarantee the safety or security of the Premises or the Property or any of the personal property stored therein, and this Rental Agreement does not create any contractual obligation for Owner to increase or maintain such safety or security.”
The appellate court noted that such exculpatory provisions in contracts are upheld in Florida when the language of the provisions clearly and unambiguously communicates the scope and nature of the waiver, i.e. “when the language unequivocally demonstrates a clear and understandable intention for the defendant to be relieved from liability such that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away.” Therefore, the tenant failed on this action.
2) Whether the Landlord was Obligated to Repair the Tenant’s Unit
The appellate court recognized that in Florida, “commercial landlords do not have a duty to repair the premises absent a specific provision in the contract imposing such a duty.” Since the rental agreement “did not impose a duty on [the landlord] to repair [tenant’s units,” it was under no duty to repair the unit for the tenant.
The court also inserted in footnote 2 of its opinion the “rental agreement  contained a provision recommending that [tenant] obtain insurance for the items stored in the unit. [The landlord] offered insurance for purchase and it also informed [tenant] that insurance could be obtained from third parties.” This, apparently, helped the court reach its decision that the landlord was not liable to the tenant for damages to his property.