Landlord Liable for Failure to Return Tenant Property


Our law firm was not involved in the lawsuit described in this article.

NOTE : The statute quoted in this article has since been amended. 

In a recent opinion Division II of the Court of Appeals upheld a $76,275.55 verdict against a landlord and the property management firm it retained.[1] In addition, the Court of Appeals added attorney’s fees in an amount to be determined for the appeal.    

The dispute arose from the disposal of the tenant’s personal belongings.  The exact facts and circumstances are not spelled out in detail in the opinion because the landlord and property management firm had not followed proper procedures at the trial court level to perfect the appeal prior to having the case heard by the Court of Appeals. As a result the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal on a threshold procedural issue and the underlying facts of the case are not explained in great detail.

It is clear that the tenant was not evicted, which does make a difference in the rights and responsibilities of the parties.

Abandonment.

It must be stressed that abandonment must be proven “by clear, unequivocal and decisive evidence.”[2] Abandonment has been defined by the courts as “an absolute relinquishment of premises by a tenant, and consists of act or omission and an intent to abandon”.[3]

The tenant need not expressly state an intention to abandon.  Such an intention may be implied by law.[4] “This inference may be drawn from anything which amounts to an agreement on the part of the tenant to abandon.”[5] Even where the tenant does expressly agree to abandon, the tenant’s actions in doing so must indicate “clear, unequivocal and decisive evidence” of “an absolute relinquishment of premises by a tenant”.[6]

Therefore, if the tenant left a significant amount of property behind it is probably not abandonment.

If the tenant abandons, a landlord may not dispose of the tenant’s property without express written consent.[7]

Absent written consent, the landlord is be required to store the tenant’s property for 45 days after giving notice “containing the name and address of the landlord and the place where the property is stored and informing the tenant that a sale or disposition of the property shall take place pursuant to this section, and the date of the sale or disposal, and further informing the tenant of the right under RCW 59.18.230 to have the property returned prior to its sale or disposal”.[8]

“If the property has a cumulative value of fifty dollars or less [Statute since amended; the amount is now $250], the landlord may sell or dispose of the property in the manner provided in this section, except for personal papers, family pictures, and keepsakes, after seven days from the date the notice….”[9]

If the erstwhile tenant’s forwarding address is unknown the landlord may satisfy notice requirements by mailing the notice to the property address.[10]

Eviction.[11]

A new law went into effect June 12, 2008 that changes the landlord’s obligations to store a tenant’s belongings when a tenant is evicted.

Prior to this new law, a Court of Appeals decision had held that the landlord was obligated to store the tenant’s personal property under the terms of the previous statute.[12] This required storage for 45 days even if the tenant did not request it or was not present when the physical eviction took place.

Under the new law the sheriff serves a Request for Storage of Personal Property form along with the writ of restitution.  The tenant must complete and return the form to the landlord within three days.  If the tenant fails to do so the landlord has no obligation to store the tenant’s belongings.

If the tenant returns the notice to the landlord the landlord must store the belongings if the cumulative value is at least $250.00.  The belongings may be stored in the rental property.

The landlord must then send to the tenant’s last known address notice of intent to sell the personal property.  After the thirty days expire the landlord may sell all the property – including family pictures, personal papers, and keepsakes – and dispose of any items not sold.

Although the statute is silent as to the exact conduct of the sale, the landlord should make reasonable efforts to promote the sale.  This should include classified ads and/or craigslist ads, for example.

If the landlord knows the tenant has a disability and the disability impairs or prevents the tenant or the tenant’s representative from making a written request for storage, it must be presumed that the tenant has requested the storage of the property.

This is certainly not meant as an exhaustive treatise on the subject.  You should seek legal advice for questions about your circumstances.  We represent both landlords and tenants.  Contact us if you have questions about your rights or responsibilities.   


[1] Dill v. Equity Residential Properties Management Corp., Washington Court of Appeals, No. 38063-3-II.

[2] Mike v. Tharp, 21 Wash. App. 1, 8 (1978).

[3] Id.

[4] Moore v. Northwest Fabricators, Inc., 51 Wash. 2d 26, 314 P.2d 941 (1957).

[5] Id. at 30.

[6] Id. and Mike v. Tharp, above.

[7] RCW 59.18.230.

[8] RCW 59.18.310.

[9] RCW 59.18.310. Emphasis added.

[10] RCW 59.18.310.

[11] See RCW 59.18.312.

[12] Parker v. Taylor, 136 Wash. App. 524 (2007).