Burke v. Wilson

A-6978-96T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1998) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: October 14, 1998

LANDLORD-TENANT; LIABILITY—A landlord’s duty to maintain safe premises is not delegable. Therefore, a landlord may be vicariously liable for its electrician’s negligence.

In 1990, tenants moved into the second floor of a two-family home that had been purchased by its landlord in 1983 and substantially renovated in 1984. As part of the renovation, a new electrical system was installed, including a new smoke detector. The work was performed by a licensed electrical contractor and was inspected and approved. In the late evening hours of December 14, 1990, a smoldering fire developed in the bedroom of one of the tenants. The smoke detector did not sound and two of the tenants died of injuries they received in the fire. The surviving family members filed suit both individually and on behalf of the decedents. They alleged that the following parties were liable for the deaths: the manufacturer of the smoke detector, the electrician who installed the smoke detector, the inspector who approved it, and the landlord.

The only claims at issue in this case were the claims against the landlord. At the lower court level, the tenants presented several theories of liability. Their principal theory was that the landlord was vicariously responsible for the actions of the electrician who, they alleged, improperly installed the smoke detector because he failed to include a dedicated circuit for the exclusive use of the detector. As part of this theory, the tenants contended that when the fire reached the outlet, which joined to the line for the smoke detector, the circuit breaker tripped and disabled the detector. The tenants argued that the landlord could be liable for the electrician’s actions since the landlord had a nondelegable duty to provide safe premises for the tenants. The tenants also asserted that the landlord breached a duty to test the smoke detector or show the tenants how to test and maintain the detector on a regular basis to ensure it that remained operable, and that the landlord was negligent in failing to install a battery back-up power source for the detector.

The landlord moved for summary judgment, which the lower court granted, except as to the theory that it had failed to conduct monthly inspections. Sometime thereafter, the landlord refiled its summary judgment motion and this time the lower court granted it. In doing so, it held that the landlord had no duty to conduct regular inspections of the smoke detector. The Appellate Division upheld the lower court’s determination that the landlord had no duty to run monthly inspections. However, the Appeals Court reversed on the issue of liability insofar as the negligence of the electrician was concerned. The Court agreed that the landlord had a duty to maintain safe premises and perceived no unfairness in holding the landlord liable for the negligence of the electrician because the duty to maintain safe premises is nondelegable. The tenants had secured appropriate expert testimony and were entitled to present this evidence to a jury on the question of whether the landlord was negligent. Consequently, summary judgment was deemed to be improper.