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Moore v. Pulauch

A-5603-09T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; LANDLORD’S LIABILITY — Where a landlord has no prior notice about a property defect and has made reasonable inspections, the landlord will not be liable for injuries caused by the sudden appearance of a defective condition.

A long time resident of a second floor apartment “had access to the ground level by two staircases, one in the front of the house and the other in the rear that led to the background.” She had the “exclusive use of that portion of the rear staircase” and “only occasionally, perhaps two times per month, [she used it] to do her laundry or take out garbage.” One evening, she walked down the stairs to take her pit bull dog out because she didn’t want to scare people on the front steps. Allegedly, “a few steps down ... her left foot hit the molding on one of the steps and the molding ‘gave away.’” She had never noticed a defect in the molding and her boyfriend, who also used the steps, had never said anything. She never complained to the landlord before the accident because she had nothing to complain about. Her injury led to the need for her to have a knee replacement.

The landlord visited the building each month and, in the course of collecting the rent, made monthly inspections. “He testified that he was unaware of any defect in the rear staircase and the [the injured tenant] did not tell him about her accident until several weeks afterward.”

The tenant sued the landlord, and in her answers to interrogatories, she said that the landlord’s negligence “specifically allowed the nose space molding on the stairs to deteriorate, creating a hazardous and dangerous tripping condition.” She believed that the condition was the “result of a sudden failure.” Her expert witness opined that the “accident was a result of improperly installed and maintained stair nose molding” and that “the nose molding suddenly separated from the stair creating a tripping hazard.” Another expert opined that “the molding became dislodged suddenly as [the tenant] was descending the stairs.”

The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the landlord, observing that there was no dispute that “the defect in the nose molding of the staircase was latent and occurred suddenly[,]” and, “because [the landlord] had no prior notice of the defect, he could not be held liable.” There was no evidence that the landlord had created the allegedly defective condition.

The injured tenant appealed, but unsuccessfully. The Appellate Division pointed out that the lower court had noted “there was no evidence that the landlord here created the defective condition.” Consequently, because the injured tenant’s “action depended upon a showing that [the landlord] breached his duty ‘to conduct a reasonable inspection to discover latent dangerous conditions, ‘and’ to guard against dangerous conditions ... that the owner either [knew] about or should have discovered,” the landlord had no liability. This holding was based, in part, upon the injured tenant’s experts both having concluded that the “nose molding dislodged suddenly ..., a conclusion that belied [the tenant’s] allegation that the defect was observable upon reasonable inspection prior to her fall.” Even though each expert attributed the defect to “improper design, installation and maintenance of the stair nose molding,” neither expert identified any applicable standard “for proper design, installation, and maintenance of the molding or how [the landlord] had deviated from that standard.”

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