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Baboghlian v. Swift Electrical Supply Co.

197 N.J. 509, 964 A.2d 304 (2009)

FIRE CODE — In the absence of any requirement under the fire code to install a fire alarm system, the code’s requirements that an owner obtain a permit and perform inspections does not impose a nondelegable requirement on a property owner to obtain a permit, have a code officer test the system, or have the system inspected annually.

An owner of a commercial building hired an electrical contractor to install a fire alarm system. The system included smoke and heat detectors. The contractor was to service the system, but only upon request. It last serviced the system two years before a fire in the building. The fire caused severe damage to a neighbor’s property. The neighbor sued, alleging that the commercial owner negligently maintained its premises and failed to comply with fire safety measures. The commercial owner filed suit against the electrical contractor. The neighbor’s expert testified that once the owner installed the alarm system, it should have: (i) obtained a permit; (ii) had a code officer test the system; (iii) and had the system inspected annually. The expert conceded that New Jersey’s Uniform Fire Code did not require installation of a fire alarm system in the building. The owner’s expert testified that it was reasonable for the owner to rely on the electrical contractor to advise it of any Code standards or other requirements related to the installation of the system. The expert also opined that a properly working system would not have been activated at the initial stage of the fire because the fire did not originate near the alarm sensors.

The neighbor asked the lower court to advise the jury that the owner had a nondelegable duty to comply with the Code. The court denied that request. Its jury charge included an instruction that if the jury found the owner had not complied with the Code, the jury could consider this to be evidence of the owner’s failure to use reasonable care under the circumstances. The jury found neither the owner nor the contractor at fault for the neighbor’s damages. The neighbor appealed, arguing, in part, that the lower court failed to properly instruct the jury that the owner owed it a nondelegable duty.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial. It held that the specific duties imposed on a property owner under the Code are nondelegable because the obligations are designed to protect public safety. The Appellate Division found that a properly instructed jury could have found that the owner’s failure to obtain permits and then have the system inspected was evidence of a breach of a nondelegable duty to assure the system was properly working.

On further appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court reinstated the lower court’s ruling. It held that in the absence of any requirement under the Code to install a fire alarm system, the requirements to obtain a permit and perform inspections did not justify the imposition of a nondelegable duty on a property owner in having a fire alarm system installed. The Court noted that generally one who engages an independent contractor is not liable for the contractor’s negligence in the performance of that contract. It also held that the Code, as later amended, did not include permit and inspection obligations.

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