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Bell v. Aloe Village, LLP

A-3203-04T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNER LIABILITY; NEGLIGENCE—It may be foreseeable by a property owner or tenant that an invitee, locked outside on a balcony by reason of a defective door lock, might try to climb down from a balcony and be injured in the process.

While cleaning the outside glass on a balcony door, the security latch locked and trapped a tenant’s invited guest outside. After trying to signal for aid, including throwing objects off the balcony, the invited guest attempted to climb down the second floor balcony to the ground, but fell and sustained serious injuries. It was undisputed at trial that the security latch on the balcony door was improperly installed and improperly maintained by the landlord. After trial, the jury returned a verdict for the invitee, finding the landlord 70% comparatively negligent and the invitee 30% comparatively negligent.

The landlord moved for a new trial alleging the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, the product of jury sympathy, and a miscarriage of justice. In denying the motion, the lower court ruled that it might have been foreseeable that someone who is locked out of a second floor apartment might try to climb down the balcony. Thus, whether the invitee’s actions were unreasonable was an issue for the jury to decide. Here, the jury decided the matter by splitting the comparative negligence of the invitee and the landlord. The lower court ruled the jury’s findings were not a miscarriage of justice, nor the product of sympathy, and refused to disturb the jury’s findings.

The landlord appealed, claiming a miscarriage of justice because the evidence only supported the conclusion that the invitee caused her own injuries when she attempted to climb down the balcony. The Appellate Division refused to reverse the lower court’s denial of the landlord’s motion for a new trial, holding that denials of motions for new trials are reversible only when the record clearly establishes a miscarriage of justice. In doing so, the Appellate Division deferred to the lower court’s determination of witness credibility, and found that the jury’s award was not so disproportionate to the invitee’s injuries as to shock the conscience. Holding that landlords have an obligation to exercise reasonable care against foreseeable harm to others, and where the expert proof clearly established that the landlord improperly installed and improperly maintained the security latch, the Appellate Division did not find any miscarriage of justice.

As to the landlord’s contention that the invitee assumed the risk of her actions by climbing down the balcony, the Appellate Division ruled that the invitee could not assume a risk negligently created by the landlord. Further, the law provides for two or more concurrent and efficient proximate causes of injury, leaving the jury the task of deciding proximate cause and foreseeability. Finding that the jury’s conclusions were well founded in the facts of the case, the Appellate Division found no basis to believe the jury’s decision was based on sympathy for the plaintiff. Thus, the lower court’s denial of the landlord’s motion for a new trial was affirmed.

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