Ruiz v. Kaprelian

322 N.J. Super. 460, 731 A.2d 118 (App. Div. 1999)
  • Opinion Date: June 30, 1999

LANDLORD-TENANT; LANDLORD’S LIABILITY—Mere ownership of a multiple dwelling is not an abnormally hazardous activity; therefore, although lead paint can be a serious hazard, a landlord is not absolutely liable for harm caused by its presence.

A child was allegedly injured because of the dangerous levels of lead paint in an apartment in which the child’s parents had lived. The personal injury action was brought against the landlord and tried before a jury. The lower court charged the jury under a negligence theory but refused to charge on theories of breach of an implied warranty of habitability and nuisance or on any other alternative under which a landlord could be held liable without a showing of fault. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the landlord. On appeal, the child argued that under Trentacost v. Brussel, 82 N.J. 214 (1980), “[a] landlord has a duty to exercise reasonable care to guard against foreseeable dangers arising from a tenant’s use of the common areas.” In that case, the Court stated the principle that a residential lease includes an implied warranty of habitability, which previously had been applied only in landlord-tenant actions, and held that the theory could also be invoked in a personal injury action against the landlord. However, the Court, did not indicate how the duties in that earlier case, imposed under the implied warranty of habitability would differ from the duties imposed under traditional principles of negligence law. Although Trentacost was decided almost 20 years ago, there is no reported decision in New Jersey in which a personal injury claim against a landlord had been submitted to a jury on the basis of an alleged breach of the warranty of habitability. In fact, the few cases which have considered this theory of liability have construed the holding in Trentacost narrowly and held that a tenant’s personal injury claim could not be maintained under it. Consequently, the Court rejected the injured child’s argument that Trentacost established absolute liability for any breach of the implied warranty of habitability which results in personal injury. The Court would not impute knowledge to the landlord of a dangerous condition that arises during the course of a tenancy where the tenant fails to give the landlord notice of the condition. For that reason, the lower court was correct in not charging the jury regarding an implied warranty of habitability if the landlord did not have actual knowledge of the presence of lead paint in the apartment. The injured child also alleged that the landlord was absolutely liable based on a nuisance theory. However, “[t]he essence of a private nuisance is an unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of land.” Consequently, the law of nuisance is not commonly applicable to personal injury actions. Moreover, even in those relatively unusual cases in which the personal injury claim is grounded on nuisance, an injured party is generally required to show that the landlord was negligent. Mere ownership of a multiple dwelling is not an abnormally dangerous activity and although the detection and removal of hazardous lead paint is a “compelling policy” consideration, it does not, however, provide a basis for imposing liability upon a landlord.