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New Jersey School Boards Association Insurance Group A/S/O Bloomfield v. East Coast Fire Protection

August 10, 2011


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hunterdon County, Docket No. L-246-09.

Per curiam.


Argued June 6, 2011

Before Judges Grall and C.L. Miniman.

Plaintiff New Jersey School Boards Association Insurance Group, as subrogee of the Bloomfield Board of Education, filed a complaint seeking damages for loss allegedly caused by defendant East Coast Fire Protection's negligence. The judge granted defendant's motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff appeals. We reverse.

On the morning of February 7, 2007, a component of the school's sprinkler system - either a sprinkler pipe or head - in a classroom immediately below the attic malfunctioned and flooded parts of the building. The malfunction triggered an alarm in the town's fire department, and the fire department responded and shut off the electricity. Without electricity, the building had no heat.

The sprinkler system was a dry system, meaning one in which there is no water in the pipes until conditions warranting operation trigger the opening of a sprinkler head and release of the air pressure that holds back the water. Systems of this type are used in areas where temperature conditions pose a risk of pipes bursting due to the water inside them freezing.

Several of Bloomfield's officials and employees responded to the alarm. They were Thomas Pelaia, the chief inspector, fire officer and fire subcode official; Raymond Raimondi, the head custodian; Charles Collins, the director of school facilities; and Jerry Parisi, a maintenance manager. After consulting with one another and recognizing the need for prompt action, they called East Coast because the company was doing work in the town's high school at that time, even though East Coast had not installed this system. The school had to be closed because the system was not operational, and getting it working so the children could come back to school was a priority for Pelaia.

East Coast sent Robert Damato, Jr. and Kevin Maheffey to the school. Pelaia had the electricity shut off and told Damato he had directed someone to remove the sprinkler head that had activated and fill the system with water to see if there were other leaks. According to Damato, he and Maheffey were "directed to see what might have happened, what caused this problem." They were taken around the building and Damato saw a lot of water damage; he wanted to see "the actual pipe that had the sprinkler head installed in it." That head was not visible from the classroom. It was installed in the attic above it, about two feet above the acoustic-tile drop ceiling and beneath the wooden eave of the roof. Using a level, Damato and Maheffey determined that the pipe over the classroom was pitched away from the main feed and toward the sprinkler head. They knew that the pitch should have been in the opposite direction, toward the main feed and away from the sprinkler head. They also knew that the improper pitch would leave water in the pipe, which could freeze.

Damato showed Collins the problematic pitch and explained its significance. There were other school personnel present, and Pelaia recalled a discussion of the improperly pitched pipe. Collins was also aware of the problem.

After that, Damato and Maheffey drained the system and removed the pipe. This section of pipe was about thirty feet from the feed and the air pressure compressor, which maintains the pressure in the system and keeps the water out. Damato acknowledged that this type of system generally has an alarm-pressure switch. Damato explained that the alarm indicates when the pressure is too low, before the low pressure can cause activation of sprinkler heads. He did not recall whether the school's system had such a switch. Because the power was off, Damato and Maheffey did not replace the pipe until the next day. From Damato's testimony, it is not clear whether they corrected the pitch of the pipe.

Damato and Maheffey returned the next day to finish the job. The school business administrator, Michael Derderian, appeared and asked about the cost. Damato and Maheffey were not authorized to quote a price, and Damato's boss did not want to quote a price without knowing the extent of the problem and what it would take to fix it.

According to Damato, Derderian spoke with someone in East Coast's office and seemed unhappy with the answer he got. Derderian told him to put the plug back in and start the system. Damato did not tell Derderian about the problem with the pitch of the pipe or any other problem. He put a screw plug in the pipe and activated the system by resetting the dry valve.

Damato did not recall whether he drained the system a second time on February 8, and he did not check the pitch of the other pipes. Damato thought they had successfully drained it the day before and was "satisfied" that there was no water in the system. He admits telling Maheffey he was concerned that they had not been allowed to do any more work or research, but he claims he saw nothing ...

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