Szeles v. Vena

321 N.J. Super. 601, 729 A.2d 1064 (App. Div. 1999)
  • Opinion Date: June 2, 1999

LANDLORD-TENANT; NEGLIGENCE; LANDLORD’S LIABILITY—As a general rule, upon leasing a single-family home, a landlord is under no liability for personal injury caused by a defect in the property unless the defect was latent and fraudulently concealed.

The issue in this case was whether a landlord who rents a single-family home to a tenant who is given exclusive control of the premises under an oral lease is obligated to inspect and repair the premises and be potentially liable for damages when the tenant is injured on the premises. About three years into its lease, a tenant allegedly sustained injuries as a result of a fall on an exterior staircase where a brick allegedly came loose. A 1951 case, Patton v. Texas Co., 13 N.J. Super. 42 (App. Div.) held that the established general rule in New Jersey is that upon the letting of a house and lot there is no implied warranty or condition that the premises are fit and suitable for the use to which the lessee proposes to devote them and the landlord is therefor under no liability for injury sustained by the tenant or the tenant’s invitee by reason of the ruinous condition of the demised premises unless there has been fraudulent concealment of a latent defect. In this case, the tenant argued that the broad general rule expressed in Patton had been eroded. The Court recognized that there had been obvious inroads with respect to tenancy situations, particularly involving multi-family dwellings. In the case of multi-family dwellings, many cases have held that residential leases carry an implied warranty or covenant of habitability. On the other hand, those cases have held only that the breach of an implied warranty of habitability or covenant to repair could be used by a tenant only in defense of an eviction action where non-payment of rent has been alleged. That concept was not intended to overturn existing principles of law applicable to tort actions for personal injuries by tenants against landlords. Consequently, the Court did not read prior cases to extend the limited multi-family dwelling holdings to the rental of a single-family residence, especially where the tenant had control of the residence and the injury occurred because of patent defects of which the tenant became aware or should have become aware. The record demonstrated that the defective condition of the bricks and mortar was obvious. It was also not a condition that had been brought to the attention of the landlord or for which the landlord should be charged with notice. Therefore, where the tenant was in exclusive possession of the premises and the condition of the brick step was not a condition that was neither known to the landlord at the inception of the lease, nor brought to the landlord’s attention, there was no basis to impose tort liability on the landlord.