On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-6507-01.
Before Judges Skillman, Parrillo and Grall.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Parrillo, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
We granted leave to appeal from the denial of defendants' partial summary judgment motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim brought by plaintiff, Larisa Pavlova, individually and on behalf of the estate of her mother, who was fatally injured in a fire in defendant's housing complex. We now reverse.
Inman Grove Senior Citizens Residence, located in Edison Township, is a housing complex for people sixty-two years old or older. In November, 1999, plaintiff's mother, Eugenia Pavlova, who was seventy-seven years old at the time, moved into an apartment at Inman Grove. On December 18, 1999, at approximately 7:30 a.m., as Ms. Pavlova was preparing to take a bath or shower, a towel on the towel rack was ignited by a wall-mounted electric radiant heater located under and slightly to the right of the towel rack. The fire spread, and, based on her injuries, Ms. Pavlova likely attempted to put out the fire. The building fire alarm was eventually activated when smoke filled the hall.
A maintenance worker, who was in charge of safety at the time of the fire, was awakened by the fire alarm and proceeded to the second floor wing of the building where Ms. Pavlova's apartment was located. He opened the door to her apartment, where he saw flames. Realizing that he could not help Ms. Pavlova, he went to a nearby apartment and asked for help evacuating the other residents. After leading two deaf residents outside, he returned to the main office, at a different location from the building with the fire, where he called 911. When the hallway smoke alarms were activated, the central monitoring station was notified, which should have contacted the fire department. The fire department received a notification at 7:57 a.m.
When the firefighters arrived, they found the fire on the second floor. They entered Ms. Pavlova's apartment and heard her screaming. Meanwhile, firefighters outside had also connected a ladder to the window of the apartment. Finding Ms. Pavlova naked by the window, the firefighters removed her from the apartment through the window. She was burned on her hands and upper body. She was taken to the hospital and later flown to a burn center. Ms. Pavlova died from her injuries twenty-one days later.
The Inman Grove residential complex, owned and operated by defendants, Mint Management Corp. and Menlo Manor Associates, Ltd. (Mint Management or defendant), consists of several buildings containing approximately 240 housing units. All of the apartments are outfitted with electric wall heaters in the bathroom, hard wired to the building's electrical system. The heaters have exposed heating elements protected by a steel grate, and specific directions on the assembly state:"Heater should not be blocked in any manner." Nearby towel racks are placed to the left, and in some cases, directly over the bathroom unit heaters.
Between 1980 and the December 18, 1999 fire, there were two minor fires involving the electric wall heaters at Inman Grove, both resulting from the placement of combustible material directly on or in front of the heaters. On May 19, 1995, a fire started in the bathroom of a unit when the heater ignited undergarments placed directly on it. There were no injuries. Another fire started on December 2, 1995, when clothing in a shopping cart placed near the heater ignited from the heater. Two residents and one firefighter were injured.
After the second fire, the chief fire inspector in Edison sent a letter to defendant, on December 5, 1995, indicating that the"ideal solution" to preventing other fires would be to move the towel rack in the bathroom farther from the heater, but if this were not possible, the residents"must be made aware of the safety requirements when it comes to storing material too close to the heater in the bathroom." As a result, defendant posted a notice on the common bulletin board in the lobby of the housing complex for two to three months warning residents not to put anything in front of the heaters or otherwise obstruct the heaters. Defendant also organized a meeting for the residents with the chief fire inspector. Ms. Pavlova moved into her apartment at Inman Grove well after the posting of the notice and the informational meeting.
Despite the fire chief's recommendation, defendant was never ordered to move the towel racks or cited for their proximity to the electric heaters. In fact, in the twenty years of defendant's operation prior to the December 18, 1999 fire, the Edison Fire Department conducted annual inspections of the Inman Grove complex and never cited the facility for any fire code violations.
Each unit at Inman Grove contains a smoke detector to notify the occupant of smoke in the apartment. These"in room" detectors, however, do not sound the building fire alarm nor summon the fire department or building staff when activated. When smoke enters the hallway and activates a corridor alarm, a central monitoring station is notified, which then contacts the fire department. Automatic fire sprinklers are located in the hallways and common areas of the buildings. On the day in question, December 18, 1999, Inman Grove's fire protection system operated as designed, with the smoke detectors detecting a fire and two automatic sprinkler heads discharging.
As a result of that incident, plaintiff filed a complaint, individually and as the administratrix of her mother's estate, against defendant and others who"designed, manufactured, distributed, sold, installed and repaired" the heater that caused the fire. Her complaint alleged various causes of action, including strict liability, wrongful death, N.J.S.A. ...