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Sachs v. McConnell

A-1173-04T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNERS LIABILITY; NEGLIGENCE—A person who lives with a property owner “sporadically” can be considered to be a member of the owner’s household and, as such, the owner does not have an enhanced duty to that person discover dangerous conditions at the property.

For approximately 15 years, a man and a woman were “involved in a sporadic romantic relationship.” One day, while residing with the woman, the man was injured on the woman’s premises. The woman, his girlfriend, owned a two-family home. She lived on the first floor and rented the second floor to a tenant. While the man lived with his girlfriend, “he paid no rent, but he would perform small maintenance chores for [his girlfriend] both in her apartment and in the tenant’s apartment.” One day, it was necessary for him to repair a toilet in the tenant’s apartment. The downstairs unit and the upstairs unit had separate doors each leading to a porch. After completing the repair within the tenant’s upstairs apartment, the man left the upstairs apartment and slipped on a door mat on the porch, directly in front of the door that lead to the tenant’s apartment. He sued his girlfriend, as owner of the building. The lower court held him to be a social guest and not a business invitee. Under additional analysis, “a homeowner has a duty to warn the unwary social guest of a condition of the premises that the homeowner knows or has reason to know creates an unreasonable risk of injury.” Of course, “‘[i]f the guest is aware of the dangerous condition or by a reasonable use of its faculties would observe it, the host is not liable’ of the guest’s failure to use due care.”

On appeal, the injured man argued that New Jersey now took a “more fluid” approach and that his girlfriend, as a landlord within the building, owned a commercial property. Under a 1993 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, “[w]hether a person owes a duty of reasonable care toward another turns on whether the imposition of such a duty satisfies an abiding sense of basic fairness under all the circumstances in light of considerations of public policy. ... That inquiry involves identifying, weighing and balancing several 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.” Unfortunately for the injured man, even applying that standard, the Appellate Division concluded that, “under either standard, there was not sufficient evidence presented to raise a jury question regarding [the girlfriend’s] breach of a duty owed to [the injured man]. [The injured man’s] injury did not occur in the tenant’s apartment, but rather in a common area where he had earlier observed wet surfaces. [The injured man] was, in effect, a member of his girlfriend’s household. As such, he was familiar with the porch area and the entry way to the tenant’s apartment. Although [his girlfriend] owned the property, she had no greater opportunity than [he had] to discover the condition upon which [he claimed] caused his injuries. Thus, [his girlfriend] did not have an enhanced duty to make a reasonable inspection to discover the allegedly defective conditions in the common areas for the benefit of other persons such as [him], who was, in effect a member of her household.” Further, the injured man knew of water on the porch. Therefore, his girlfriend had no duty to warn him “since he already had knowledge of the same hazard.” For that reason, according to the Court, “it would be unfair and unjust to impose upon [the girlfriend] any duty to warn [her boyfriend] as to the hazards presented in the common area.”


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