Emotional Distress Damages for Statutory Habitability Action

In McNairy v. C. K. Realty, case no. B178918 (May 22, 2007), the Second District Court of Appeal holds that tenants may recover emotional distress damages in an action under Civil Code section 1942.4 against their landlord for breach of statutory habitability standards. Reasoning that the term “actual damages” in the statute (since amended, but still allowing for “actual damages”) has a plain meaning that includes emotional distress damages, the court rejects the landlord’s contention that emotional distress damages in such actions will lead to windfall recoveries. The statute requires severe and prolonged habitability problems, which naturally lead to inconvenience:

Generally, the residential tenant who has suffered a breach of the warranty does not lose money. He instead cannot bathe as frequently as he would like or at all if there is inadequate hot water; he must worry about rodents harassing his children or spreading disease if the premises are infested; or he must avoid certain rooms or worry about catching a cold if there is inadequate weather protection or heat. Thus discomfort and annoyance are the common injuries caused by each breach and hence the true nature of the general damages the tenant is claiming. (Quotation marks and citation omitted.)

The court notes other states had construed similar statutes to include emotional distress damages, and that other “actual damages” provisions in the California codes had been construed to include emotional distress damages. Finally, because the damages were awarded on a statutory cause of action rather than an action for breach of the lease contract, the award of emotional distress damages was not an impermissible award of tort damages in a contract action.