A tenant can file 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.176 This kind of lawsuit can be filed in small claims court or Superior Court, depending on the amount demanded in the suit.177 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 $5,000.178 “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.179
The court also may order the landlord to abate (stop or eliminate) a nuisance and to repair any substandard condition that significantly affects the health and safety of the tenant.180 For example, a court could order the landlord to repair a leaky roof, and could retain jurisdiction over the case until the roof is fixed.
176 Civil Code Section 1942.4.
177 One reference book cautions against a tenant litigating implied warranty of habitability issues in small claims court because collateral estoppel precludes an issue decided there from being relitigated. Moskovitz et al., California Landlord-Tenant Practice, Sections 5.16,
5.39 (Cal. Cont. Ed. Bar 2006), citing Pitzen v. Superior Court (2004) 120 Cal. App. 4th 1374 [16 Cal. Rptr. 3d 628].
178 Civil Code Section 1942.4(b)(1).
179 Civil Code Section 1942.4(b)(2), Code of Civil Procedure Section 1174.2.
180 Civil Code Section 1942.4(a),(c).