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Lawsuit for Damages

Remedy 4: Lawsuit for Damages


A tenant has another option: filing a lawsuit against the landlord to recover money damages if the landlord does not repair serious defects in the rental unit in a timely manner.

This kind of lawsuit can be filed in small claims court or Superior Court, depending on the amount demanded in the suit. The tenant can file this kind of lawsuit without first trying another remedy, such as the Repair and Deduct remedy.


If the tenant wins the lawsuit, the court may award the tenant his or her actual damages, plus "special damages" in an amount ranging from $100 to $5,000.

"Special damages" are costs that the tenant incurs, such as the cost of a motel room, because the landlord did not repair defects in the rental unit. The party who wins the lawsuit is entitled to recover his or her costs of bringing the suit (for example, court costs), plus reasonable attorney's fees as awarded by the court.

To prepare for filing this kind of lawsuit, the tenant should take all of these basic steps:

  • The tenant should notify the landlord in writing about the conditions that require repair.  

  • The rental unit must have serious habitability defects that were not caused by the tenant's family, guests or pets.

  • The notice should specifically describe the defects and the repairs that are required.

  • The notice should give the landlord a reasonable period of time to make the repairs.

  • If the landlord doesn't make the repairs within a reasonable time, the tenant should contact the local city or county building department, health department, or local housing agency and request an inspection.

  • The housing inspector must inspect the rental unit.

  • The housing inspector must give the landlord or the landlord's agent written notice of the repairs that are required.

  • The substandard conditions must continue to exist 35 days after the housing inspector mailed the notice to the landlord or landlord's agent. The landlord then must collect or demand rent, raise the rent, or serve a three-day notice to pay rent or quit.

  • The tenant should gather evidence of the substandard conditions (for example, photographs or videos, statements of witnesses, inspection reports) so that the tenant can prove his or her case in court.

  • The tenant should discuss the case with a lawyer, legal aid organization, tenant program, or housing clinic in order to understand what the lawsuit is likely to accomplish, and also the risks involved.

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