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Smith v. Koltex Apartments, L.L.C.

A-1334-07T4 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

EVICTIONS; TENANT’S PROPERTY — A landlord has an obligation to appropriately store the contents of its tenant’s apartment after eviction and if the landlord violates that duty of care and the tenant’s property is stolen or damaged, the landlord will be liable for the loss to its former tenant.

A tenant was evicted from his apartment for failure to pay the rent. After an order of removal was issued, the tenant’s possessions were removed from the apartment. It is unclear who took the tenant’s belonging once they were removed.

Tenant sued his landlord for failing to comply with its statutory duty of care imposed on landlords to protect the contents of a tenant’s home after an eviction. Both parties had conflicting stories of the events surrounding the disappearance of the tenant’s possessions. The landlord claimed the tenant left no forwarding address and did not return any of its phone calls. The tenant claimed that when he came to retrieve his belongings, everything had been moved into the hallway and the most valuable items had been taken.

The lower court ruled against the landlord. It found that the landlord violated its duty of care and estimated that the tenant’s stolen belongings, net of the money the tenant owed landlord for back rent, was $10,000. This estimate was based on the tenant’s testimony as to what items were taken and his determination as to the value of such items. The landlord appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s finding that the landlord’s failure to appropriately store the contents of the tenant’s apartment after the eviction was the cause of the tenant’s personal property loss, but it remanded for a further hearing on the issue of damages. First, the Court noted that the tenant did not introduce evidence of comparable merchandise or sales receipts, or produce any documentation as to the value of the items as new, used or replaced. The only evidence as to the existence of the items taken was gleaned from a handwritten list produced by the tenant at trial. This list was not given to the Appellate Division. Although the Court knew it was bound by the credibility findings made by the lower court, it still disagreed with the lower court as to the manner by which the items were valued. The Court noted that the lower court essentially accepted the tenant’s opinion as to the value of his belongings without requiring him to provide any evidence to support his assertions. The tenant did not offer any other proof as to the items’ value other than his own opinion. The Court believed that the tenant’s “perfunctory recitation of item and value, without anything more, [was] simply inadequate.” The Court thus found that the lower court failed to fulfill its responsibility to perform judicial fact-finding.

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