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Siddons v. Cook

2005 WL 3440703 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005)

CONDOMINIUMS; ASSOCIATIONS; LIABILITY—A condominium association has a sufficient relationship to its unit owners such that if it is aware of a condition that could cause damage to a unit owner, even if the condition is within a unit and not within the common elements, the association may be found liable for damage to units owner’s property if it fails to warn them of the problem.

The owner of a downstairs condominium unit sued the condominium association and the upstairs unit owners after a broken dishwasher hose in the upstairs condominium flooded the downstairs unit. The association “was aware that similar hoses had previously broken in other condominium units.” According to both the lower court and the Appellate Division, the upstairs unit owner was “neither strictly liable nor liable in negligence for the damages to [the lower floor unit].” On the other hand, the Appellate Division, unlike the lower court, believed that the condominium association may have been liable. Three prior units experienced similar problems and each time, the affected unit owner or occupier had notified the association as to what occurred. Each time the association responded “that the broken hoses were not the Condominium Association’s responsibility.” As background, the Court addressed the damaged unit owner’s “claim that the Condominium Association had a duty to warn the unit owners of the potential problem with the dishwasher hoses.” Clearly, the dishwasher was not a common element and therefore the association’s by-laws placed the “responsibility for their inspection and maintenance on the unit owners.” This, however, is not the same as relieving the association of a duty to warn “unit owners of the potential defect in the dishwasher hoses after it was put on notice of the defect.” Under current law, to determine the existence of such a duty, “a court considers fairness and public policy. ... Forseeability of injury to others from a defendant’s conduct is important, but not dispositive ... whether a duty is owed turns on whether the imposition of the duty ‘satisfies an abiding sense of basic fairness under all of the circumstances in light of considerations of public policy.’” Because the issue was one of first impression, the Court looked “first to cases that imposed a duty to warn in similar, but not identical, contexts.” Among other things, it concluded “[t]hat [the] duty to warn, which in some instances is independent of a duty to inspect, repair or maintain, [had] been imposed in a variety of non-landowner contexts.” The Court gleaned “from the case law that under some circumstances the knowledge of a dangerous condition, regardless of control for that condition, may impose upon a person a duty to warn their parties of the danger.” It concluded that those circumstances existed in this case. Although “[t]he Condominium Association had no duty to either inspect or maintain the personal property located in the [upper floor] condominium unit, [n]onetheless, because it knew of the potentially dangerous condition, and that condition was not open and obvious to the unit owners, it had a duty to act reasonably to warn the unit owners of the potential danger.”

The Court also pointed out that a condominium association has a fiduciary obligation to its unit owners. Indeed, “its very existence is for the benefit of the unit owners.” Further, the Condominium Act “give a condominium association the power to protect property of the unit owners,” allowing the association to access each unit to make emergency repairs. The close relationship between an association and its unit owners weighed in favor of finding that the association “had a duty to warn the unit owners of the potential for flooding under the circumstances as presented.” Further, the association was aware of the nature of the risk and, because the risk was not known to the majority of the unit owners, the association “was in the best position to notify the unit owners of the potentially dangerous condition.” According to the Court, it would not have been unduly burdensome for it to do so.” Lastly, the Court pointed out that “a flood in a condominium unit could damage not only other units, but also the common elements. The interest of the unit owners in their personal property and the interest of the unit owners as a whole in the common elements, would be safeguarded by requiring the warning.” In conclusion, the Court found that the association’s conduct could have been corrected relatively easily and the harm sought to be prevented was serious. Therefore, it found to impose the duty on the association “to warn of known defects in personal property located in units that could damage other units or the common elements.” “Whether it breached that duty to warn, and, if so, [whether] the breach was a proximate cause of [the lower unit owner’s] injuries remain[ed] questions for the jury.”

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