Last week, I wrote about an exception to the strict liability normally imposed on dog owners under New Jersey's dog bite statute. (A short time before that, I wrote about yet another exception to strict liability under the dog bite statute, so the exceptions are obviously more interesting than the rule.) This post is about a different dog bite case, Ward v. Ochoa, with a similar result even though it was not decided under the dog bite statute. Ward involved a home inspector who was attacked and severely injured while performing a home inspection. She sued the dog owners (who eventually settled) along with the real estate agency and real estate agent who were selling the house. Like the dog groomer in last week's post, however, the home inspector's claims were dismissed.
Although I have been a homeowner for a number of years and like to think that I am reasonably handy, my knowledge of plumbing is probably more informed by Mario Brothers than anything else. As the saying goes, I know just enough about the subject to be dangerous, so I generally try to avoid it. One of the parties in a recent Appellate Division decision, Sayat Nova, LLC v. Koestner, probably would have been better served heading this advice, as the Appellate Division held that no expert was needed to show that it acted negligently when it broke a pipe in a clogged tub that caused flooding in a restaurant several floors down.
In Sayat Nova, plaintiff operated a restaurant in defendant's building. After water from a third-floor apartment came flooding like a "waterfall" out of the ceiling and into the restaurant, plaintiff sued. The incident that precipitated the lawsuit was not the first time that the restaurant flooded. Four times in the previous three years, water entered the restaurant from the same general area in the ceiling. Each incident "involved more water and more damage than the previous incident." Each time plaintiff notified defendant, but never received a response. On one prior occasion, after receiving no response from defendant, plaintiff hired contractors at his own expense to repair the damage. Plaintiff was never compensated for these expenses or any losses caused by the prior incidents.
In the incident that led to the complaint, water came into plaintiff's restaurant from the ceiling above a different area of the restaurant than in prior incidents. Moments after plaintiff noticed the intrusion, the building's superintendent entered the restaurant with a man plaintiff did not know. Neither man was a licensed plumber. The superintendent told plaintiff: "By mistake we broke the pipe . . . We try to fix the fixture, and the guy by mistake break the pipe." He was apparently referring to a pipe in a third-floor apartment with a "hair-clogged tub." After the incident, defendant called a licensed plumber to fix the problem, but the damage caused plaintiff to have to close his restaurant several days for repairs.
Lenders are often faced with a dilemma when dealing with property that is in foreclosure and has been abandoned by the borrower. A lender must, under New Jersey law, maintain the property "to such standard or specification as may be required by state law or municipal ordinance." Also, the lender has an obvious interest in protecting the value of its collateral. But the lender does not want to take "possession" of the property and be deemed a "mortgagee in possession," because that would impose upon the lender the duty of a "provident owner," which includes the duty to manage and preserve the property, and which subjects the lender to liability for damages to the property and damages arising out of torts that occur on the property. Unfortunately, the point at which a lender takes "possession" of property is not entirely clear. I have written about this before, and the Appellate Division's recent opinion in Woodlands Community Association, Inc. v. Mitchell provides some additional guidance, which should be helpful to lenders.
In Woodlands, defendant was the assignee of a note and mortgage related to a unit in plaintiff's condominium development. The unit owner defaulted on the loan and vacated the unit. At the time, the unit owner was not only delinquent on his loan payments, but also owed "substantial sums" to the association for "unpaid monthly fees and other condominium assessments." After the unit owner vacated the unit, defendant changed the locks and winterized the property. (As the Appellate Division noted, "[w]interizing entails draining the pipes, turning off the water and setting the thermostat for heat to protect the pipes.") After the unite owner vacated the unit, plaintiff sued him to recover the delinquent fees. It later amended its complaint to include the lender, "alleging that [[the lender] was responsible for the association fees as it was in possession of the property."
Both parties moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion, holding that defendant was a mortgagee in possession and therefore was liable for the maintenance fees. On the key of issue of what it meant to be in "possession" of the unit, the trial court held as follows: "[D]efendant held the keys, and no one else [could] gain possession of the property without [defendant's] consent. This constitutes exclusive control, which indicates the status of mortgagee in possession." Defendant appealed.
Turns out, a lot could go wrong. But, if it does, the neighbor whose tree limbs inspired you to climb the ladder, chainsaw in hand, probably won't be responsible, at least according to the holding in Corbisiero v. Schlatter.
In Corbisiero, plaintiff was a tenant in mixed-use property that was adjacent to defendant's property. In Spring 2013, some twigs and branches fell from tress located on defendant's property onto the property where plaintiff lived. Plaintiff asked defendant to cut down some of the branches that extended onto the property, which defendant did. A few months later, plaintiff asked defendant to cut down some more branches. Defendant told plaintiff that she would do it when she had time.
Apparently unwilling to wait for defendant to get to it, plaintiff spoke to her landlord about cutting the branches herself. Her landlord told her that "if [the tree limbs] grew over his property . . . we [can] cut them down." The landlord also told plaintiff that he would reimburse her for the cost of a chainsaw to be used to cut down the limbs. It is unclear if the landlord was suggesting that plaintiff both buy the chainsaw and cut the limbs down (as opposed to buying the chainsaw and having someone else do it), but plaintiff nonetheless chose to take matters into her own hands and do both.
Me neither, but that is what happened in Glenn v. Duroseau. In fact, plaintiff in that case alleged that she not only left the money on the counter but that, when she went back a few minutes later, it was gone. To make matters worse, the security camera in the store did not work, so there was no way to tall exactly what happened. The trial court originally held this against the store owner, holding that he had a duty to plaintiff to ensure that the security cameras were working, but this decision was reversed on appeal.
In Glenn, plaintiff claimed that she walked into a UPS Store and placed her pocketbook on the counter, along with an envelope containing $600 in cash. When she left, she claimed that she took the pocketbook but not the envelope. She walked about four blocks away from the store before she realized that she was missing the envelope. When she returned to the store, the envelope was gone. She asked a store employee if he had seen it, but he responded that plaintiff did not leave an envelope in the store. Plaintiff became upset and called her boyfriend, who arrived and told the employee to give plaintiff her money back. The employee again denied that plaintiff had left an envelope in the store.
Plaintiff then called the police. When police officers arrived, they asked if the security cameras in the store were working. The employee did not know, but called his boss, who arrived on the scene and promised to review the tapes. However, it turned out that the security cameras were not working. Plaintiff sued the store owner, seeking the return of her $600.
In the recent past, I have written several posts about when property owners can be liable for accidents caused by their failure to shovel snow from the sidewalks abutting their property. The basic rules are well settled – residential property owners generally don't have a duty to shovel but commercial property owners do. Therefore, my posts focused on the more unique (and hopefully, interesting) cases. For example, one post discussed whether a property was residential or commercial, and therefore whether the property owner would be required to shovel or not, when the owner lived in one unit of the multifamily building and rented out the other units. Another post discussed whether a lender who obtained final judgment of foreclosure on a commercial property, but that had not yet taken title to the property through a sheriff's sale, was required to shovel the sidewalks around the building.
Now there is another case that is somewhat different than the traditional snowy sidewalk slip and fall. In Holmes v. INCAA-Carroll Street Houses Corp, plaintiff was a tenant in a property owned by defendants. She sued after she slipped, while on the way to her car, on "an accumulation of snow" approximately three feet from the doorway to her apartment. (The area where she fell was actually not a sidewalk, but was instead a "lawn or grassy area," but this distinction was not relevant to the court's decision.) A snowstorm has been raging since the night before. The snow had slowed, and perhaps even stopped, by the morning of the accident, but the storm had nonetheless dropped more than 15 inches of snow on the area. The conditions in the area were so severe that, when plaintiff's son called an ambulance to take her to the hospital, the ambulance company refused because of poor road conditions. The roads were not clear until the following day, at which point plaintiff drover herself to her doctor's office to be examined.
Plaintiff alleged that defendant had a duty to clear the snow from the property. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to do so in the middle of a storm. The court agreed with defendant.
There is a scene in the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" where the main character goes to a surf instructor to teach him how to surf. The lesson is not that helpful because, among other things, the instructor gives the main character advice that is impossible to follow, like: "Don't do anything. Don't try to surf. Don't do it. The less you do the more you do." And, then later: "try less" and "do less."
I was reminded of this decision when I read the Appellate Division's recent opinion in McRoy v. Eskander. In that case, the Appellate Division held that a lender was not a mortgagee in possession and therefore could not be liable for injuries sustained by someone who slipped and fell on the sidewalk in front of the property. The reason the lender could not be deemed a mortgagee in possession was because it had done almost nothing to maintain the property in the 18 months after it obtained a final judgment of foreclosure.
In McRoy, plaintiff slipped and fell on snow and ice in front of a four-unit apartment building that was owned by Defendant Eskander. At the time of plaintiff's fall, however, the building had been vacant for approximately 18 months. Eskander had defaulted on his loan with Bank of America ("BofA"), which led BofA to foreclose on its mortgage on the property. BofA obtained final judgment of foreclosure but had not proceeded to a sheriff's sale at the time of plaintiff's fall. Once final judgment of foreclosure was entered, Eskander stopped maintaining the property. Except for performing yard work once, BofA did not maintain the property either. It did periodically inspect the property to ensure it was vacant and, to protect its collateral, it paid the real estate taxes and a water bill.