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Meier v. D’Ambose

A-2555-09T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD’S LIABILITY — Without maintenance and inspection, a furnace can pose an unreasonable risk of physical harm; therefore, where a lease does not shift responsibility for a furnace to a tenant and gives the landlord the right to enter a property and make inspections and repairs, the landlord has a duty to make sure that the furnace is in safe operating condition and it doesn’t have to have received notice of a defect for it to be held liable for injuries caused by a defective furnace.

A tenant died from smoke inhalation as the result of a fire caused by a deteriorated flue in a furnace. The fire department’s report was that improper and unsafe operating conditions led to a hostile flame. The tenant’s sister sued the landlord for negligence and wrongful death. The furnace was at least eight years old and the landlord had never had the furnace inspected and only arranged for its repair on one occasion. At the time the tenant took occupancy, the landlord had the property inspected by the municipality and received a certificate of occupancy. The governing lease required the tenant to keep the furnace clean. The lease required the landlord to inspect the house and make necessary repairs, alterations, and improvements. In his deposition, the landlord conceded that it was his responsibility to repair the furnace. The lease required the landlord to make necessary repairs within a reasonable time after receiving notice from the tenant.

The lower court granted summary judgment to the landlord, concluding that the landlord had not breached any duty of care owed to the tenant. It found that the landlord had the municipality inspect the furnace at the beginning of the tenancy and had repaired the furnace in response to the only complaint (lack of heat) it had received from its tenant. The lower court characterized the deteriorated flue pipe as a latent defect for which the landlord was not responsible because he had no notice of a defective condition. It further held that because the tenant was in sole possession of the premises, the landlord did not have to make periodic furnace inspections to discover defects.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter, holding that, under the circumstances, the landlord had a duty to maintain the furnace to make sure it was not dangerous, and this duty included required periodic inspections. It found that, without maintenance and inspection, a furnace can pose an unreasonable risk of physical harm. Further, it held that the lease’s provisions did not shift that responsibility to the tenant. The lease gave the landlord the right to enter the property to make inspections and needed repairs. The Court said that the landlord’s duty to make sure the furnace was in safe operating condition did not rely on him having notice of a defect.

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