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Dowler v. Boczkowski

148 N.J. 512, 691 A.2d 314 (1997)

LEASES; WARRANTIES; NEGLIGENCE—In the absence of a legal requirement to maintain a smoke detector in a single family rental home, the owner is not liable to its tenant for negligently relocating such a device before the rental term began. And, it wasn’t a breach of the implied covenant of habitability either.

The landlord of a single-family rental home moved a smoke detector from upstairs (near the bedrooms) to the downstairs hallway. A husband and wife later took possession under a lease that did not have a provision concerning smoke detectors. Neither the landlord nor the tenants performed any maintenance on the smoke detector. The wife accidentally threw a lit cigarette into a trash container and the ensuing fire injured her husband who was sleeping in one of the upstairs bedrooms. The tenants claimed the smoke detector did not activate, and they sued the landlord for negligently failing to provide a fire protection system. The trial court dismissed the complaint on a motion for summary judgment, concluding that the landlord had no duty to provide a fire protection system. The Appellate Division reversed, claiming negligent repair by the landlord when he moved the smoke detector to the downstairs hallway. The Appellate Court held that while a landlord is not liable for nonfeasance when there is no duty to repair, once a landlord voluntarily undertakes a duty to repair, he may be liable for not doing enough. The Appellate Court concluded that summary judgment was inappropriate since a sufficient issue existed as to whether the landlord was negligent in moving the smoke detector. On appeal, the landlord claimed that his action did not constitute a defective repair situation because all he had done was add a smoke detector prior to the lease with the tenants, and at that time no smoke detector was required in the first place.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey stated that in the absence of any contrary agreement, a landlord is under no obligation to make repairs or remedy defects before or during a tenancy. Even though the Court agreed with the Appellate Division that once a landlord voluntarily makes repairs it is liable for failure to perform in a reasonably careful manner, it found the Appellate Division to be mistaken in this case when it characterized landlord’s relocation of the smoke detector as a repair. Even if it were deemed a repair, the landlord breached no duty owed to the injured tenant because the negligence occurred before commencement of the tenancy. In short, the addition of a smoke detector prior to a tenancy does not constitute a repair. Furthermore, there was no representation or assurance by the landlord that there was a smoke detector, and the location of it was obvious and did not create a latent or dangerous condition. The Court then held that the implied covenant of habitability was not breached, in part because the lack of an upstairs smoke detector was readily apparent to the tenants yet they chose not to remedy the situation either by notifying landlord or by installing one themselves and deducting the cost from future rent. As to the issue of whether smoke detectors were required under any statute, by the time this case reached the Supreme Court there were three different statutes that required working smoke detectors in dwellings. However, at the time of the fire none of them required smoke detectors to be installed in the house at issue. One statute required smoke detectors in residences built after 1977, but the house was built in 1960. Another statute applies only to multiple dwellings, and a third statute was not enacted until 1991, three years after the fire. The Court concluded that because neither the covenant of habitability nor any then-existing law required the installation of smoke detectors, landlord’s act of moving the smoke detector away from the bedroom area was not negligent.

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