On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-3117-08.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Axelrad, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Telephonically Argued: May 23, 2011
Before Judges Axelrad, R. B. Coleman, and J. N. Harris.
The opinion of the court was delivered by AXELRAD, P.J.A.D.
Defendant, Patricia Gike, the renter of a hotel room, appeals from summary judgment holding her vicariously liable under the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law, N.J.S.A. 55:13A-l to -28, and its regulations promulgated by the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), N.J.A.C. 5:10-1.1 to -28.1, for property damage caused by her guest, even though she never entered the room and was not present when the incident causing the damage occurred. We affirm in part and remand in part.
Plaintiffs Calco Hotel Management Group, Inc. and Andrew C. Befumo, Inc. filed a two-count complaint against Gike, asserting a claim based on ordinary negligence principles (count one) and on administrative regulations relating to the maintenance of hotels (count two). Gike filed an answer and third-party complaint against her guest, Joseph Michael Wood.*fn1 Plaintiffs thereafter filed a motion for summary judgment and Gike filed a cross-motion. Following oral argument on January 22, 2010, the trial court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on the second count of their complaint and denied Gike's cross-motion, articulated in a statement of reasons and memorializing orders dated March 2, 2010.*fn2 Following oral argument on July 9, 2010, the court denied Gike's motion for reconsideration, articulated in a statement of reasons and memorializing order dated July 14, 2010. On December 8, 2010, final judgment in the amount of $675,000 was entered against Gike, based on a stipulation not contained in the appellate record. This appeal ensued.
I. Viewed most favorably for Gike, Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 523 (1995), the motion record reveals the following. Gike, an elderly woman, knew Wood for about twelve years when the events giving rise to this appeal took place. She encountered Wood sporadically throughout this time and occasionally hired him as a handyman to perform work at her house in Freehold. On Friday, May 11, 2007, while Wood was performing yard work for Gike, he began having a seizure. Gike transported Wood to a nearby hospital and returned home. The following morning Wood telephoned and asked Gike to pick him up from the hospital. He told her he had no place to go but needed to remain in the area for a follow-up medical appointment on Monday, May 14, 2007. Gike agreed to rent him a room at the Days Inn in Freehold for a two-night stay.
Gike and Wood arrived at the hotel around 9:30 a.m., she paid for the room with her credit card, and she left Wood there. Gike signed a reservation form that listed one room, one adult, for two nights, in which she agreed "personally to pay all charges incurred during [her] stay" and "abide by . . . house rules." The form further stated, in pertinent part, that the hotel "is not responsible for property damage or loss. Your party assumes all risks of personal injury unless caused by hotel's sole negligence."
According to Wood's deposition testimony, the room was not ready when he was dropped off so he walked to a nearby liquor store, purchased beer and began drinking. He then encountered a friend and the two of them took a bus to Lakewood. After a short visit with his uncle, Wood purchased a gas can from Auto Zone, filled it with some gasoline, and caught a bus back to the Days Inn. Already intoxicated, Wood bought more beer before returning with his friend to the hotel. The record indicates Gike was unaware of Wood's conduct after she left him at the hotel.
Wood retrieved the room key from the front desk and, once inside the
room, he lit a cigarette and prepared to huff the gasoline.*fn3
Prior to doing so, he accidentally kicked the gas can over
and some gasoline spilled onto the floor. The tip of the cigarette
ignited the gasoline and, as described by Wood, "the place just went
up." The fire caused significant damage to the hotel, stipulated at
Plaintiffs argued on summary judgment that Gike, as the renter of the room, was an "occupant" under N.J.A.C. 5:10-2.2, which defines "occupant" as follows:
[A]ny person or persons, including guests, in actual physical possession or occupancy of a unit of dwelling space on a regular basis. For purposes of assigning specific duties or responsibilities, the term "occupant," unless the text indicates otherwise, shall mean the tenant, lessee, head of the family or household, or other adult person or emancipated minor ...