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NJ Supreme Court Declines to Extend Landlord’s Common Law Duty in the Absence of Any Regulatory Violations (NJ)

September 5, 2019

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In <a href="https://njcourts.gov/attorneys/assets/opinions/supreme/a_6_18.pdf?c=yTQ"><em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/J.H.-v.-RM-Tagliareni-LLC.pdf">J.H. v. R&amp;M Tagliareni, LLC</a>,</em></a> the Supreme Court of New Jersey considered whether liability should be imposed on a landlord based on a theory of regulatory responsibility over an apartment building’s heating system, or based on a new common law duty to cover an apartment unit’s radiator with insulating materials.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The case dealt with a 9 month old who sustained burns from coming into contact with a radiator inside the parents’ apartment.  The radiator, which was not insulated, could have been shut off by the tenants, but they could not control the temperature.  One of the parents was charged with and pled guilty to 4<sup>th</sup> degree child abuse/neglect for placing a 9 month old in a bed with no rails and for leaving the baby with his sister who was 10.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Nonetheless, the mother tried to sue the landlord on the theory that the landlord had a duty to provide a safe apartment pursuant to the State’s Multiple Apartment Dwelling regulations.  Those regulations state that parts of the “heating system” must be insulated.  The regulations also provide a list of items included within the “heating system” such as risers, ducts and hot water lines, but the list did not include radiators as being part of the heating system which must be insulated.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment, finding that the radiator is not part of the heating system which must be insulated, as well as finding that the landlord, who was heavily regulated and who was subject to routine inspections, was never given a violation for failing to provide covers for the radiators inside each apartment.  The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the regulatory scheme encompassed radiators as being part of the heating system, although no such express intent was included within the regulations.  The Appellate Division further held that a jury should have been allowed to assess whether the landlord breached its common law duty of care to provide a reasonably safe dwelling.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and upheld the trial court’s dismissal on summary judgment.  First, the Supreme Court was unpersuaded that the “heating system” included radiators as there was no such legislative intent.  Instead, it was clear that pipes and ducts had to be insulated, but not radiators.  The Court also declined to extend a landlord’s duty of care to provide radiator covers, especially since the landlord was in compliance with all applicable regulations.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">This case is a good illustration of how compliance with regulations can get lead to a dismissal, on a dispositive motion, without the need for a lengthy trial that could allow a jury to find liability despite there being no unlawful conduct.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thank you to Michael Noblett for his contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="mailto:chayes@wcmlaw.com">Colleen E. Hayes</a> with any questions.</p>

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