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Reyes v. Egner

404 N.J.Super. 433, 962 A.2d 542 (App. Div. 2009)

LANDLORD-TENANT; LANDLORD LIABILITY — Although continuing to evolve, the general principle is that a landlord who leases an entire property to its tenant and who does not conceal, fraudulently or otherwise, dangerous conditions on the property, does not owe a duty of care to its tenant, this principle will not be applied in the case of a short term or seasonal lease arrangement.

A guest, who had been vacationing at a beach house, was injured when he fell from a rear deck that did not have a handrail. A broker, acting on behalf of the owners of the property, had leased the house to the guest’s daughter for a short, two-week term. The broker’s form “Seasonal Short Term Lease Agreement,” was one page in length. The tenant did not inspect the premises prior to arriving at the house with her parents. The broker did a cursory examination of the premises before it leased the house and found no “glaring” safety problems.

The guest sued the broker and the owners alleging negligence, breach of the implied warranty of habitability, and violations of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. The lower court held that, as a matter of law, the broker owed no duty to conduct a reasonable inspection or to warn others of patent defects and granted summary judgment to the broker. The lower court noted that the broker had not contracted with the owners to make repairs or to re-inspect the house, and had only received a “nominal” commission.

The owner’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint was also granted. The lower court agreed with the owners that, absent fraudulent concealment of the condition by owner, a residential landlord is not responsible for a guest’s injuries when caused by latent defects. The Court also ruled that the defects were patent in nature. The lower court held that it was for the jury to decide the issues of proximate causation and whether there was a dangerous condition at the premises.

The Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s ruling as it applied to the owner. The Court believed that the factual context in this case was “fundamentally different” from previous court rulings related to multi-year tenancies. It found that short-term renters are “not apt to perform as thorough an inspection … as tenants who expect to remain for significant periods of time.” In addition, it found that owners of vacation premises are more apt to guard against dangerous conditions on their property. Therefore, the Court held that owners of property offered for short term leases have a duty to a guest with respect to the hazardous condition even if the owner did not fraudulently conceal such a defect. Thus, it remanded the case to the lower court to determine if these particular owners had “reason to know” of the defect and its associated risks and whether the tenant knew, or had reason to know, of the defect and the risks involved. The Court also remanded on the issue of whether the visible defects in connection with the deck were patent or latent.

As to the broker, the Appellate Division upheld the summary judgment determination in its favor. It agreed with the lower court that the broker had only a limited scope of responsibility and thus the broker’s connection with either the owner or the tenant “did not create a duty … to search every nook and cranny of the rental premises.”


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