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Faber v. Creswick

Decided: December 7, 1959.

ELEANOR V. N. FABER AND E. CORNING FABER, HER HUSBAND, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
EDWIN R. CRESWICK AND BERNICE K. CRESWICK, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Burling, Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall and Schettino. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Francis, J. Burling, J., concurring in result.

Francis

[31 NJ Page 235] This is a landlord and tenant personal injury negligence case. At the close of the plaintiffs' proof, the Law Division of the Superior Court granted the defendants' motion for judgment. Thereafter, an appeal was taken and while it was pending in the Appellate Division, we granted certification.

Defendants Edwin R. Creswick and Bernice K. Creswick, husband and wife, are owners by the entirety of a one-family house in Little Silver, New Jersey. Plaintiff E. Corning Faber rented the premises for the 1956 summer season under a written lease made with defendant Edwin R. Creswick. Negotiations for the rental were carried on between their wives. At the trial and on the appeal, much attention was devoted to a claim that an oral lease was in fact consummated by the two women. On that issue, although it is obvious that Mrs. Creswick authorized and consented to the making of the lease, it is our opinion that the written document superseded the oral negotiations and that Mrs. Faber was not a party to the rental contract.

The living quarters of the house were on the first floor. The second story as originally constructed was an open attic. Mr. Creswick, at some time prior to the letting, undertook to improve the attic as a "do it yourself project." He built partitions of sheet rock or plaster board and created a room or rooms and a hallway, entrance to which was gained by a stairway leading from the first floor. At the top of the stairway at the attic floor level, there was a large open stairwell. The evidence adduced at the trial showed that a portion of the stairwell at attic floor level was covered over with a section of sheet rock or plaster board. The inference was plain that Creswick had placed it there or knew of its presence. The photographs in evidence indicate that it rested on two sides on the edge of the flooring, that it was held in place on the third side by a narrow wooden moulding, and that on the edge near the staircase it had no independent support at all.

A person coming up the staircase, on reaching the top, would turn in the opposite direction and walk along a hallway paralleling the stairwell. Opposite the far end of the stairwell, the rear portion of which was covered over by the sheet rock or plaster board, there were two partitioned sections of the attic. One was on the left side of the hallway and the other on the right. The entranceway to the area

on the right was created by plaster board partitions and at the place of entrance the partition on the right at floor level (according to the photographs) was less than a foot from the edge of the stairwell, and particularly from the portion of it which was covered by the sheet rock or plaster board. Thus, one coming out of this area and turning left to go back to the staircase would be likely to walk across a portion of the plaster board. As far as the record reveals, there was nothing to indicate that such a course should not be taken.

There is no doubt that the use of the attic was an incident of the lease. In fact, the proof demonstrates that while showing the house, Mrs. Creswick specifically mentioned it and advised Mrs. Faber that clothes lines had been installed there for use on rainy days.

In accordance with the understanding reached in the oral negotiations, the lease provided that the lessor would "have the house thoroughly clean and in good order and repair at the beginning of this lease."

The Fabers moved in on July 15, 1956. On July 18 Mrs. Faber went up to the attic for the first time. After depositing certain articles in the area on the left, she crossed over to the room on the right of the hallway to look for the clothes lines. She stood in the entranceway and saw them. On turning to go back to the top of the stairs, she took a step or two across the plaster board. It collapsed under her weight, precipitating her onto the staircase and down to the living room floor. Injuries and expenses, which need not be detailed here, followed.

At the close of the plaintiffs' case, the trial court granted the defense motion for dismissal. He declared that the rights and duties of the parties were controlled by the written lease between Edwin Creswick and E. Corning Faber. Despite the inclusion of an agreement to have the premises in good repair, he held, on the authority of Clyne v. Helmes, 61 N.J.L. 358 (Sup. Ct. 1898), that Mrs. Faber, not being a party to the instrument, could not recover for damages

resulting from a breach of the covenant. And Mr. Faber's claim for consequential losses was denied because, as a derivative cause of action, its legal efficacy ...


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