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Dwyer v. Skyline Apartments Inc.

Decided: March 8, 1973.

JOSEPHINE DWYER, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
SKYLINE APARTMENTS, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Carton, Mintz and Larner. The opinion of the court was delivered by Larner, A.j.s.c., Temporarily assigned.

Larner

Defendant appeals from a judgment entered for plaintiff in the sum of $1,500 by a judge of the Bergen County District Court after a trial without a jury.

Plaintiff was a tenant for 15 years in a multiple-family garden apartment development owned by defendant. On February 8, 1971 she was in the bathtub of her apartment, and as she turned on the hot water faucet the entire "fixture came out of the tile," as a result of which scalding water gushed out of the pipe causing burns to various parts of her body.

The testimony in the case was limited to that of plaintiff, who described the faucet after it came out of the wall as "very corroded." However, she had no idea of its condition prior to the accident since the corrosion was on the portion of the faucet which was in the wall, and as a consequence no complaint was ever made to the landlord. It was in essence a latent defect unknown to the tenant, unknown to the landlord and not discernible on reasonable inspection.

The trial judge found for plaintiff despite the absence of actual or constructive notice of the condition by the landlord. He concluded that the landlord is strictly liable because of its contractual responsibility flowing from a continuing implied covenant of habitability. In effect, he concluded that negligence concepts are no longer viable in personal injury claims by tenant versus landlord arising out of the condition of the tenant's premises.

A brief review of some of the precedents controlling landlord-tenant liability is in order.

A landlord of a multiple-family dwelling has the duty to maintain all parts of the structure and equipment in good repair, including the premises within the confines of the tenant's apartment. Michaels v. Brookchester, Inc. , 26 N.J. 379 (1958); Altomare v. Cesaro , 70 N.J. Super. 54 (App. Div. 1961). This duty as it applies to the tenant's

premises came about through the rejection of the caveat emptor theory and the application of the Tenement House Act (N.J.S.A. 55:1-1) now known as Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Act (N.J.S.A. 55:13A-1). Ibid.

Furthermore, our courts have consistently held that regardless of the application of the statute, the landlord has the duty to maintain and repair those facilities in or out of the tenant's premises which are an integral part of the equipment under his control, such as water pipes, heating pipes and radiators, plumbing fixtures, electrical equipment and the like. Coleman v. Steinberg , 54 N.J. 58 (1969); Conroy v. 10 Brewster Ave. Corp. , 97 N.J. Super. 75 (App. Div. 1967); Altomare v. Cesaro, supra; Restatement, Torts 2d, ยงยง 360 and 361 (1965).

Hence, under either the theory of the landlord's obligations under the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Act or the theory of control of the water supply system and all its parts, defendant in this case unquestionably had the basic duty to maintain and repair the piping and faucets in and leading to plaintiff's bathtub.

However, the nexus between duty and liability is proof of negligence. Negligence in this context requires not only proof of the condition which caused the injury but that the condition was known or should have been known by the landlord prior to the occurrence, so that he had an opportunity to correct it.

Since his duty is not to insure the safety of tenants but only to exercise reasonable care, a landlord is liable only for injurious consequences to a tenant by reason of defects "of which he has knowledge or of defects which have existed for so long a time that * * * he had both an opportunity to discover and to remedy." Francisco v. Miller , 14 N.J. Super. 290, 296 (App. Div. 1951); Coleman v. Steinberg , 54 N.J. 58, 63 (1969); Ellis v. Caprice , 96 N.J. Super. 539, 547 (App. Div. 1967); Mikrut v. ...


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