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AGO 1981 No. 21 - December 23, 1981
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Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

LANDLORD AND TENANT ‑- FIRE ‑- INSTALLATION OF SMOKE DETECTORS IN CERTAIN DWELLING UNITS 

To the extent that it requires smoke detection devices to be installed in all dwelling units occupied by persons other than the owner on and after December 31, 1981, RCW 48.28.140 [48.48.140] covers the ordinary landlord-tenant situation as generally defined and regulated by the Residential Landlord-tenant Act (chapter 59.18 RCW);  accordingly, unless the legal relationship of owner-tenant also exists in a given case, the foregoing provision does not apply to dwelling units occupied by the grantor of a trust who continues to reside in the dwelling place or by his or her surviving spouse or family, or by a ward in a guardianship case, or by the donee of a dwelling unit under the Uniform Gift of Realty to Minors Act. 

                                                              - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                December 23, 1981 

Honorable Phil Talmadge
St. Sen., 34th District
4006 53rd S.W.
Seattle, WA 98116

Cite as:  AGO 1981 No. 21                                                                                                                

 Dear Sir:

            By recent letter you directed our attention to so much of RCW 48.48.140 (codifying § 1, chapter 50, Laws of 1980) as requires that:

             "(1) Smoke detection devices shall be installed inside all dwelling units:

             "(a) Occupied by personsother than the owner on and after December 31, 1981; . . ."  (Emphasis supplied)

             You then requested our opinion on the following question:

             "Does this new section require the installation of smoke detection devices in dwelling units occupied as follows:

             "1. By the grantor of a trust to which the dwelling unit has been conveyed?;  or

              [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            "2. By the surviving spouse or family of a deceased person where all or a portion of the title to the dwelling unit is in a trust created by the Last Will and Testament of a deceased person?;  or

             "3. By the ward of a dwelling unit owned by the Guardian of the ESTATE of such ward?;  or

             "4. By the beneficiary of a dwelling unit titled in the name of a custodian under the Uniform Gift of Realty to Minors Act?"

             We respond in the manner set forth in our analysis.

                                                                      ANALYSIS

             The full text of § 1, chapter 50, Laws of 1980, now codified as RCW 48.48.140, reads as follows:

             "(1) Smoke detection devices shall be installed inside all dwelling units:

             "(a) Occupied by persons other than the owner on and after December 31, 1981;  or

             "(b) Built or manufactured in this state after December 31, 1980.

             "(2) The smoke detection devices shall be designed, manufactured, and installed inside dwelling units in conformance with:

             "(a) Nationally accepted standards; and

             "(b) As provided by the administrative procedure act, chapter 34.04 RCW, rules and regulations promulgated by the state fire marshal.

             "(3) Installation of smoke detection devices shall be the responsibility of the owner.  Maintenance of smoke detection devices shall be the responsibility of the  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] tenant, who shall maintain the device as specified by the manufacturer.  At the time of a vacancy, the owner shall insure that the smoke detection device is operational prior to the reoccupancy of the dwelling unit.

             "(4) Any owner or tenant failing to comply with this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than fifty dollars.

             "(5) For the purposes of this section:

             "(a) 'Dwelling unit' means a single unit providing complete, independent living facilities for one or more persons including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation; and

             "(b) 'Smoke detection device' means an assembly incorporating in one unit a device which detects visible or invisible particles of combustion, the control equipment, and the alarm-sounding device, operated from a power supply either in the unit or obtained at the point of installation."

             Your stated concern is only with subsection (1)(a) which relates to dwelling units ". . . occupied by persons other than the owner"‑-on and after December 31, 1981.  Conversely, you are not asking about subsection (1)(b) which applies to all dwellings built or manufactured in this state after December 31, 1980, regardless of ownership or occupancy.  Clearly, however, that latter provision of the law will apply in all of the cases posited by your question where the dwelling unit involved is one which was built or manufactured after that specified date.

             Insofar as subsection (1)(a), supra, is concerned, however, we do not believe that the installation of smoke detectors is required by that provision in any of the cases you have described‑-solely on the basis of the limited facts you have asked us to assume.

             It is true that, read literally in the light of established principles of property law,1/ the subject provision might be thought by some to be applicable to any dwelling unit which is  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] occupied by someone other than the entity in which legal and/or equitable title is vested, under any circumstances; e.g., by the grantor of a trust who continues to reside in the dwelling or by his or her surviving spouse or family, or by a ward in a guardianship case, or, finally (insofar as your question is concerned) by the donee of a dwelling unit under the Uniform Gift of Realty to Minors Act.2/   But when read, instead, in the context of the subject legislation itself, a different, more common-sense conclusion appears to us to follow; namely, that the legislature, in enacting this statute was truly thinking, quite simply, of the normal landlord-tenant situation.

             Any number of case may be cited, of course, for the fundamental proposition that language within a statute is to be read in context with the entire statute and construed in a manner consistent with the general purpose of the law.  See, however, for examples the following:  Standing v. Department of Labor and Industries, 92 Wn.2d 463, 598 P.2d 725 (1979);Childers v. Childers, 89 Wn.2d 592, 575 P.2d 201 (1978);  State v. Wanrow, 88 Wn.2d 221, 559 P.2d 548 (1977); Graham v. State Bar Association, 86 Wn.2d 624, 548 P.2d 310 (1976);  Hartman v. Washington State Game Commission, 85 Wn.2d 176, 532 P.2d 614 (1975);  Champion v. Shoreline School District No. 412, 81 Wn.2d 672, 504 P.2d 304 (1972);  Roza Irrigation District v. State, 80 Wn.2d 633, 497 P.2d 166 (1972);  andState ex rel. Kadow v. Board of Adjustment, 77 Wn.2d 587, 464 P.2d 418 (1970).

             In line with that rule, we think the key to a resolution of the meaning and scope of subsection (1)(a), supra, is to be found in the language of subsections (3) and (4) of the same law which, repeated for ease of reference, read in full as follows:

             "(3) Installation of smoke detection devices shall be the responsibility of theowner.  Maintenance of smoke detection devices shall be the responsibility of the tenant, who shall maintain the device as specified by the manufacturer.  At the time of a vacancy, the owner shall insure that the smoke detection device is operational prior to the reoccupancy of the dwelling unit.

             "(4) Anyowner ortenant failing to comply with this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than fifty dollars."  (Emphasis supplied)

              [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            In order to determine the meaning of those underscored two terms, another, related rule of construction next leads us, in turn, to the provisions of chapter 59.18 RCW, known as the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act.  That rule, as recently stated inChampion v. Shoreline School District, 81 Wn.2d 672, 674, 504 P.2d 304 (1972), is that,

             ". . . statutes which are in pari materia should be read together as constituting one law.  Statutes are in pari materia when they relate to the same person or thing, or to the same class of persons or things.  State ex rel. American Piano Co. v. Superior Court, 105 Wash. 676, 178 P. 827 (1919)."

             Here, both chapter 59.18 RCW and the pertinent portions of § 1, chapter 50, Laws of 1980,supra, relate to, and regulate, the relationship between non-occupying owners of dwelling places and their tenants.  The Residential Landlord-Tenant Act does so on a generalized, comprehensive basis while chapter 50 deals, specifically, with the respective duties of such owners and their tenants from the standpoint of (a) installing and (b) maintaining smoke detection devices for the purposes of protecting the tenants in the case of fire.

             Both the word "owner" and the term "tenant" are expressly defined in the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act.  First, RCW 59.18.030(4) defines "owner" to mean,

            ". . . one or more persons, jointly or severally, in whom is vested:

             "(a) All or any part of the legal title to property; or

             "(b) All or part of the beneficial ownership, and a right to present use and enjoyment of the property."

             Next, subsection (8) of the same section defines "tenant" as follows:

             "(8) A 'tenant' is any person who is entitled to occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes under a rental agreement."

              [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            This, then, is the situation, or relationship, which we believe the legislature truly had in mind when it enacted subsection (1)(a) and the corresponding provisions of subsections (3) and (4) of chapter 50, Laws of 1980, supra.

             Of course, it is possible in a given case that this relationship might be superimposed on some other, simultaneous relationship between two individuals or entities‑-although we would think that rather unlikely with respect to such things as the trustee‑beneficiary, guardian-ward, or custodian-minor child relationships.  The focal point of inquiry, in each instance, will be the existence or non-existence of a "rental agreement," which is also defined, in subsection (6) of RCW 59.18.030,supra, to encompass,

             ". . . all agreements which establish or modify the terms, conditions, rules, regulations, or any other provisions concerning the use and occupancy of a dwelling unit."

             Broad though that definition is, however, such a contractual formulation of the terms and conditions of occupancy will not ordinarily (at least) be found as between a trustee and beneficiary, guardian and ward, or custodian and minor child.

             We trust that the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

 Yours very truly,
KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
Attorney General 

PHILIP H. AUSTIN
Deputy Attorney General 

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

 1/See, Annot., Scope and import of term "owner in statute relating to real property, 2 A.L.R. 778 (1919), 95 A.L.R. 1085 (1935).

 2/See, chapter 21.25 RCW. 

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