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Riesenbach v. Verrier

A-468-02T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (Unpublished)

CONDOMINIUMS; UNIT OWNERS—Making condominium unit owners liable for the acts of their invitees and visitors does not make them liable for acts of their tenants unless the condominium documents expressly set forth that liability.

A condominium unit owner sued a neighboring unit owner for damage to his unit resulting from a fire in the neighbor’s unit. The neighbor’s unit was leased to a tenant. The unit owner claimed that, pursuant to a provision in the master deed, the neighbor was liable for damage caused by the tenant. That provision held a unit owner responsible for damages to another unit caused by the negligence of the owner, a member of his family, a pet, a guest, an invitee or visitor or an occupant. The owner claimed that, under the master deed provision, the neighbor was liable for the damages to his unit that were caused by the tenant because the tenant was an “occupant” within the meaning of the master deed. The lower court disagreed. It found that the master deed provision was intended to hold a unit owner liable for negligent acts caused by individuals or pets under the owner’s control. In the case of a family member, guest, visitor, or pet, a unit owner can exercise a certain amount of control over their behavior. A unit owner should be responsible for damages caused to others if he fails to prevent negligent behavior of his or her family members, pets or guests. On the other hand, a unit owner has no control over the behavior of a tenant who occupies the unit.

The Appellate Division affirmed, noting that in landlord-tenant situations, a landlord and tenant do not act as agents for each other in an agency relationship. A tenant enjoys the use and occupancy of the leased premises free of the landlord’s control. Therefore, the landlord cannot be held responsible for the negligent acts of the tenant. The only way the neighbor could be held liable for the negligent acts of his tenant is if the master deed provision imposed that liability. The Court found that the master deed was a sophisticated legal document, drafted by experienced attorneys, and designed to extend the rights of the condominium association to the outermost limit. The Court inferred that the condominium association would have included the word “tenant” in the liability provision had it intended to extend liability to a unit owner for damages caused by a tenant’s negligence.

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