Appellate Court Expands Recovery Of Attorneys' Fees On Bodily Injury Case
Recent decision is a cautionary instruction for landlords regarding the breadth and application of attorneys' fees provisions in lease agreements.
In Hemphill v. Wright Family, LLC, 2015 WL 780090, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that a tenant's fall in a common area arose out of the homeowner's "tenancy" and entitled him to an award of attorneys' fees as the prevailing party. Plaintiff leased a Mobilehome space from the Park pursuant to a written lease agreement. The lease agreement contained an attorneys' fees provision, which provided that in "any action aris[ing] out of the Homeowner's tenancy, this Agreement, or the provisions of the Mobilehome Residency Law, the prevailing party or parties shall be entitled to recover reasonable expenses, including without limitation" attorney fees and costs. Plaintiff prevailed in his lawsuit against the Park at trial and made a motion for attorneys' fees as the prevailing party under the lease, which was denied by the court.
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's order, and concluded that plaintiff's fall "arose out of his tenancy" and therefore he was entitled to recover attorneys' fees as the prevailing party. In reaching its opinion, the Court of Appeal noted that while the lease did not define "Homeowner's tenancy," it differentiated between homeowners with a tenancy relationship with the Park (i.e. the persons signing the lease as homeowner) and extra persons (i.e., those sharing the home site and invitees on the home site). As such, the Court found that the plaintiff was a homeowner with a tenancy relationship and his action arose out of this tenancy. The Court rejected the Park's argument that the legal duty breached did not arise out of the lease because the Park's argument ignored the fact that the attorneys' fee provision provided three independent bases for an award of attorneys' fees, and adopting the Park's argument would improperly render the term "homeowner's tenancy" meaningless.Clients should keep this case in mind when using form lease agreements or drafting leases containing attorneys' fees provisions, as courts will interpret such provisions under traditional contract principles. As such, clients should attempt to define terms in the lease agreements, where practicable, in order to provide parameters for an award of attorneys' fees.
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