Listen to this article

Fourth of July is upon us and it’s time to dust off that package of M-80s you’ve been dying to light.

Suppose when they shoot off they start a fire on the top of the house you are leasing. In Illinois, can your landlord sue you for the fire damage to the leased premises caused by your conduct?

No. And yes.

Whether a tenant is responsible to the landlord for fire damage depends on what the parties agreed to when they entered into their lease agreement.

And what if the lease doesn’t say anything about the tenant being liable for fire damage? In fact, what if it says the landlord is not responsible for insuring tenant’s property and tenant should maintain his/her/its own insurance?

In almost every case, a landlord wants to have insurance covering the landlord’s leased real estate for repair/replacement expenses caused by fire. So the landlord buys the insurance and may calculate that into the overhead to figure out the amount of rent to be charged.

Illinois courts have ruled that when it is the intent of the parties that the landlord maintains fire insurance, and the lease is otherwise silent, and the conduct of the parties does not suggest otherwise, the parties might be considered to have intended to be co-insureds under the landlord’s fire insurance. Landlord pays the premium, but the tenant contributes to that premium expense by paying rent. In that situation, they might be interpreted as co-insureds because they both pay for the premium.

And guess what? Under Illinois law co-insureds generally cannot sue one another to recover money from the other for damage or injury that is covered under the policy they are both insureds on.

One Illinois appellate court ruled the tenant was not liable even though the lease said the tenant shall be responsible for “any damage to the premises.” The words “any damage” didn’t do the trick. The court measured the intent of the parties from other lease language about who was buying, or supposed to buy, insurance covering property for fire damage. The court concluded there was no intent by the parties that the tenant was to be liable to landlord specifically for fire damage.

For landlords (and for the landlord’s insurance company that pays the landlord for the damage repair and thus steps into the legal shoes of the landlord so as to try to sue the tenant to recover), the only way to douse the legal flames of fire recovery is to state loud and clear in the written lease that the tenant shall be liable to landlord for fire damage caused by tenant. Landlords often carry hefty fire deductibles, so it’s in their interest to recover from tenant.

Think about that when you’re sitting in the emergency room while the team applies burn bandaging to your head and to the three stubs on your right hand where fingers used to be right before you lit that M-80.

I know you’re dying to fire those off this Fourth.

Try not to die. Or if you do, at least try not to set your leased house on fire.

The landlord might sue your estate.

Brett Kepley is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Inc. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.