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Court Refuses to Extend Property Owner’s Duty in Personal Injury Action (NJ)

August 2, 2019

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In<em> <a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/J.H.-v.-RM-Tagliareni-LLC-1.pdf">J.H.-v.-RM-Tagliareni-LLC</a>,</em> the court considered whether liability should be imposed on a corporate landlord based on a theory of regulatory responsibility pursuant to an apartment building’s heating system or by crafting a new common law duty to cover an apartment unit’s radiator with insulating material. The trial court granted summary judgment and the Appellate Division reversed, setting up a showdown in the New Jersey Supreme Court.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">As with so many cases, the facts are unfortunate. Plaintiff, J.H., was a nine-month old infant that was placed in a twin bed to sleep with his stepsister. The bed did not have rails and was adjacent to a steam-heated radiator that did not have a cover. The next morning, J.H. was discovered on the floor with his head pressed against the uncovered, free-standing cast iron loop radiator owned and managed by defendants. J.H. suffered permanent scarring. J.H. and his guardian <span style="text-decoration: underline;">ad litem</span> filed suit, alleging that defendants’ negligence was the cause of J.H.’s injuries.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">After reviewing an extensive record, the trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment for two reasons. First, defendant landlords did not owe a common law duty of care to place a cover on the apartment’s radiator. Second, the defendant landlords were not required to cover the radiator with insulating material by the regulation that governs “heating systems.” The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the landlord maintained sufficient control that such a duty of care was owed and concluding that plaintiff should be allowed to argue defendants breached the aforementioned regulation.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">A divided Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and reinstated the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for two reasons. First, the regulation, which states “[t]he heating system, including <em>such parts as heating risers, ducts and hot water lines</em>, shall be covered with an insulating material or guard to protect occupants,” did not impose a duty on landlords to cover in-unit <em>radiators</em>. Second, the record revealed that only tenants maintained exclusive control over the heat emanating from individual radiators; as such, the Court declined to impose a new common law duty on landlords to cover all in-unit radiators.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Brent Bouma for his contribution to this post. Please email <a href="mailto:VPinto@wcmlaw.com">Vito A. Pinto</a> with any questions.</p>

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