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Coyne v. Price

2006 WL 2621076 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNER LIABILITY — Without prior knowledge of any defects in a toilet’s operating system, there is no duty on the part of an owner of an upstairs apartment or condominium unit to shut off the source of water to that toilet when leaving the apartment or unit, even if the absence would be for an extended period of time.

Owners of a condominium unit in a high rise building suffered water damage when the toilet tank in the unit above overflowed. Apparently, “the stem holding the ball [float] in the tank ... snapped off, apparently corroded from water over a period of time.” The lower court believed that the unit owners whose toilet tank had leaked had a duty to turn off the water when they left the unit because those unit owners only occupied that unit on a seasonal basis even though they returned once or twice during the winter to use the unit. The lower court noted that the very same unit owners turned off the washing machine “because of potential leaking with other hoses,” and believed that they should have turned off the water to the toilet as well. The Appellate Division disagreed. “Whether a duty exists is fact sensitive, and dependent on an evaluation of various factors including: [T]he nature of the underlying risk at harm, that is the foreseeability and severity, the opportunity and ability to exercise care to prevent the harm, the comparative interest of, and the relationships between or among, the parties, and, ultimately, based on considerations of public policy and fairness, the societal interest in the proposed solution.” After paying attention to those standards, the Court was “satisfied that circumstances presented in this matter, when applied against the aforementioned principles, did not give rise to a duty on the part of [the upstairs unit owners] to have shut off the source of water to the toilet in their condominium unit.” The Court pointed out that the unit owners “made an inspection of the unit prior to leaving and did not observe or hear any problems with any of the bathroom fixtures.” Also, because it was summer, not winter, when one might be concerned with water freezing inside the toilet tanks or pipes, they did not take any precautionary measures with respect to the toilets. “Without prior knowledge of any defects in the toilet’s operational system, nor knowledge of prior incidents concerning the breaking of stems that operate the float inside toilet water tanks, [the Court found] the absence of any further precautionary measures reasonable.” In essence, the Court found that the lower court was wrong when it thought that if someone was going to be absent for more than a day, that person should shut off the water to all of the toilets.


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