On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Camden County.
Michels, Havey and Conley. The opinion of the court was delivered by Havey, J.A.D.
Defendants City of Camden (City), Leonard J. DiMedio, the City Building Inspector, and Walter Richardson, the City's
Director of Public Works appeal, by leave granted, from an order granting class certification to the named plaintiffs under R. 4:32. The named plaintiffs are property owners in the City whose dwellings were damaged or destroyed by fires originating in City-owned, abandoned dwellings. Plaintiffs' complaint seeks damages and injunctive and declaratory relief for themselves and for "dozens or hundreds of persons . . . [who] have been damaged by defendants' negligence, unconstitutional or unreasonable conduct." In granting plaintiffs' motion to maintain the class action, the trial judge found that plaintiffs had met the conditions under R. 4:32-1(b)(1)(A) and (B) and -1(b)(3).
On appeal, defendants argue that the conditions under the class action rule were not satisfied because: (1) the purported "class" is not sufficiently numerous for class certification; (2) its identity is too "ill-defined," and (3) separate issues of liability, causation and damages relating to the property damage of each proposed class member mandate separate trials. We reverse, concluding that plaintiffs have not met the requirements for class certification under R. 4:32.
According to plaintiffs' complaint, six of the named plaintiffs owned dwellings on Royden Street which were damaged by a fire occurring on March 17, 1987. Plaintiffs Robledo own property on Garfield Avenue which was destroyed by a fire occurring on July 6, 1988. The gravamen of the complaint is that the City's failure to maintain or secure its abandoned buildings has permitted vandals to occupy them and set fires which spread to adjoining structures. They claim that the City-owned structures are "hazardous and attractive nuisances," and the City's failure to maintain the structures constitutes negligence and has caused or will cause an unlawful taking of the property of class members in violation of the New Jersey Constitution.
In moving for class certification, the named plaintiffs sought to represent:
all homeowners in the City of Camden whose homes have been, or have the potential of being, damaged by fires starting in and spreading from abandoned derelict houses owned and controlled by defendant City of Camden.
For purposes of plaintiffs' motion, defendants were deemed to have admitted that between January 1984 and May 1990, over 80 privately-owned structures in the City had been damaged or destroyed by fires originating in City-owned, abandoned buildings. In most cases the buildings had been acquired by the City through tax foreclosures. According to Camden Fire Department "run reports," 61 fires during the pertinent time period had spread to and damaged private dwellings.
Plaintiffs argued that they had satisfied the prerequisites for a class action because questions of law and fact were common to all members of the class. Specifically, plaintiffs anticipated common questions of fact concerning: (1) the nature of defendants' efforts, or lack thereof, to secure abandoned properties; (2) the relationship between abandonment and arson; (3) defendants' knowledge of such relationship, and (4) reasonable standards in securing or demolishing abandoned properties. Plaintiffs argued that common legal questions were raised concerning: (1) defendants' liability under the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to -12.3; (2) deprivation of plaintiffs' property rights without due process of law in violation of the N.J. Const. of 1947 art. I, para. 1; (3) a taking of plaintiffs' property without just compensation in violation of N.J. Const. of 1947 art. I, para. 20, and (4) the validity of defendants' attempts to require plaintiffs to demolish or secure their own property damaged by the fires.
In granting plaintiffs' motion, the trial judge concluded that plaintiffs had satisfied the numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequacy of representation conditions under R. 4:32-1(a). He also determined that without class certification there was a possibility of inconsistent or varying adjudications and a risk that adjudications respecting individual class members may be dispositive of the interests of other members not parties to the litigation. He also found that the questions common to the
members predominate over questions affecting only individual members. However, the judge established two "subclasses":
1. Class One, composed of individuals who own residential properties located within the City of Camden which have been damaged by fires originating in vacant, city-owned structures; and
2. Class Two, composed of individuals who own residential properties located within the City of Camden and who may potentially suffer damages as a result of fires ...