Causes of Action for Shut-Off

Where a landlord shuts off or interrupts utilities intending to terminate occupancy, a tenant has causes of action against the landlord for (1) breach of contract, (2) negligence, (3) violation of statutory protections under Civil Code section 789.3, (4) wrongful eviction, and (5) violations of local rent control ordinance, where applicable.

Damages for Shut-Off

A tenant with interrupted utilities can sue to have the utilities turned back on or move out and sue the landlord for actual damages, including moving costs, emotional distress, and the difference in rent between a new unit and the old unit. Cal. Civ. Code § 789.3. If a landlord cuts the utilities to force a rent-controlled tenant out of a low rent unit, the tenant may be entitled to the difference in rent taken out over a number of years.  In several local jurisdictions, this amount is trebled where the tenant can prove that the landlord was motivated to get more rental income from the property.

Whether in a rent-controlled jurisdiction or not, a tenant with obstructed utilities is entitled to $100 per day with a minimum of at least $250 in damages.  Id. The award is calculated per unit, not per tenant. Kinney v. Vaccari, 27 Cal. 3d 348 (1980).  The $100 day penalty stops accruing once the tenant vacates.  Hale v. Morgan, 22 Cal. 3d 388 (1978).  However, once a tenant vacates, the tenant will have a cause of action for constructive eviction.  The damages for constructive eviction include moving costs and the rent differential between the vacated unit and the replacement unit times the expected number of years the tenant expected to be in the unit. Under the statute, a tenant can also recover reasonable attorney fees. Cal. Civ. Code § 789.3(d).

A tenant can have more than one residence and still recover under the utility shutoff statute. Otanez v. Blue Skies Mobile Home Park, 1 Cal. App. 4th 1521 (1991).

Criminal Liability for Shut-Off

A landlord may also be subject to criminal prosecution and imprisonment for interruption of utilities.  Cal. Penal Code §§ 591-593.