Issues Involving Residential Fires

By: Jack Cannon

In 2005 there were approximately 396,000 residential structure fires reported in the United States, which caused an estimated $10.7 billion in property damage. These fires caused 3,055 deaths and 13,825 injuries in 2005 alone. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, fire killed more Americans than all natural disasters combined. The leading cause of fires in residential structures is cooking, accounting for 28.9% of all reported residential fires.

Conventional wisdom suggests that smoking would present a higher risk of causing a fire than does a simple task like cooking. However, only 2% of all reported fires are caused by smoking. Interestingly, those 7,400 smoking fires caused nearly 10% of all fire related deaths, whereas nearly 107,000 cooking fires caused only 2.9% of all reported fatalities.


It is important for property owners and renters alike to understand their responsibilities and rights when it comes to protecting against residential fires. Generally speaking, a property owner may be responsible for injuries that occur to individuals while on the property. This may include injuries that result because of a fire on the premises. Fortunately, most homeowners’ insurance policies cover fires to residential structures, even those caused by negligence. The insurance company is usually obligated to pay for damages caused by fire.

Both the Illinois Smoke Detector Act and the Chicago Smoke Detector Ordinance outline individual’s rights and responsibilities as it relates to fire protection. The Smoke Detector Act provides that each dwelling unit shall be equipped with at least one functioning smoke detector within 15 feet of every room which is used for sleeping. The Act defines a dwelling unit as including single-family homes, each living unit of a multiple family residence, and each unit in a mixed-use building. The owner of each dwelling unit is responsible for ensuring compliance with both the Act and the Ordinance. (Act: 425 ILCS 60/1, Ordinance: Chicago Municipal Code Sec. 13-196-100).

However, Illinois law holds that the Smoke Detector Act does not require a townhouse or condominium owners’ association to bear the responsibility of complying with the Act. The responsibility falls on the owner of each unit. Sandstrom v. DeSilva, 268 Ill.App. 3d 932 (1st Dist. 1994), Allen v. Lin, 356 Ill.App.3d 405 (1st Dist. 2005).

The Act also provides that owners of rental units (i.e. residential apartments) must install smoke detectors. This responsibility will not fall on a homeowners association or tenant, as neither is viewed as an owner of any individual residence. Under the Act, the owner of any dwelling unit made available for rent is responsible for providing the tenant of each unit with written information regarding smoke detector maintenance and testing.

If an owner fails to follow the provisions of the Smoke Detector Act and an injury results to a guest or tenant, the owner may bear responsibility in civil litigation.

Also, in Sandstrom v. DeSilva, the appellate court found that each townhouse unit, which was separated by fire walls from its neighboring unit, was a separate building, and as such, the association was absolved from liability. The court held that it was the responsibility of the individual owner to install a smoke detector. That owner may be held liable in court if injuries occur to a third party resulting from the owner’s failure to install a smoke detector.

Illinois law also mandates that a tenant in a rental unit look to the provisions of his or her lease agreement to determine who bears responsibility for adherence to the Act. The Illinois Supreme Court has long held that in the absence of an express provision in a lease, a tenant is not liable to the landlord for damages to premises from fire, even that which is caused by the negligence of the tenant. Generally, the building owner would carry fire insurance and thus, the insurance company would ultimately bear responsibility for those damages. Cerny-Pickas & Co. v. C.R. Jahn Co., 7 Ill.2d 393 (1955).


Owners and tenants alike should examine their lease agreement for express terms regarding fire protection and responsibility. In the absence of such language in the lease, the owner of each dwelling unit is generally responsible for ensuring compliance with local and state fire provisions and taking steps to protect the home from fire. No matter who is ultimately liable, it is very important that all parties ensure compliance with fire protection regulations for the safety of those on the premises.