Rogers v. Bree

329 N.J. Super. 197, 747 A.2d 299 (App. Div. 2000)
  • Opinion Date: March 17, 2000

PERSONAL INJURY; AGENTS; LIABILITY—A property manager who did not undertake a duty to inspect the property or make repairs was not liable to a residential tenant who was injured by a defective appliance.

A tenant leased a townhouse. The townhouse was marketed by a real estate agent who also acted as a property manager during the tenancy. As property manager, the agent’s duties were collecting rent, paying maintenance fees, and acting as the contact agent for the owners if repairs were made. More than two years after moving in, one of the tenants went to the basement to check his laundry and saw water around the washing machine. While examining the washing machine, he placed his hand on its back, but there was no back panel. As a consequence, he came in contact with wires and was electrocuted, causing some of his fingers to be severed. He sued both the owner and the real estate agent. The tenant conceded that there had been no discussion with the agent regarding the condition of the washer and dryer and also conceded that he expressed no concerns regarding the conditions of the appliances while viewing the premises. Further, no complaints were made thereafter. The Court needed to determine whether, under the circumstances presented, the agent owed a duty to the tenant, and if it did, the extent of that duty. “In determining whether a duty exists, the court must identify, weigh and balance the following factors: the relationship of the parties; the nature of the attendant risk; the opportunity and ability to exercise care; and the public interest in the proposed solution.” The Court found no cases with facts similar to this one. It looked at Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426 (1993). In that case, a real estate agent was found liable for an accident that occurred while it was conducting an open house. There, the New Jersey Supreme Court imposed on the broker a duty to ensure, through a reasonable inspection and warning, the safety of prospective buyers and visitors who tour an open house. However, the Court limited that duty by concluding that it did not require the broker to warn against any dangers that were not known to a broker or would not be revealed during the course of a reasonable broker’s inspection. The Appellate Division declined to extend Hopkins to the facts of this case. It held that the agent had not assumed the role of a property manager. It did not undertake to be responsible for necessary repairs. It did not assume, by contract, the responsibility of inspecting the property periodically on behalf of the owners to discover latent defects. The tenant did not claim that he relied upon the agent to inspect the townhouse for latent defects or, if he did, such reliance was reasonable. Consequently, the Appellate Division declined to impose a duty upon this agent, in light of its limited undertaking for a nominal fee, to inspect the rented property for latent defects. “There is nothing unfair or unjust in declining to impose a duty under these circumstances.” The Court then went on to note that prospective tenants have the ability to protect themselves by engaging home inspection services.