Supreme Court Rules that Landlord Owes No Duty Where Tenants Maintain Exclusive Control Over Heat from Radiator
In a case involving an injury to a tenant, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently held that a landlord had no common law duty to cover all in-unit radiators in an apartment building where the tenants maintained exclusive control over the heat emanating from the radiator. J.H. v. R & M Tagliareni, - N.J. – (2019).
The plaintiff, J.H., was a nine-month-old infant who suffered permanent scarring when he was burned by an uncovered-freestanding radiator in an apartment that was owned and managed by defendant.
The individual apartments were not equipped with thermostat controls, but the radiators in each room of the apartment could be shut off by tenants through valves located at the base of each radiator unit. The plaintiffs argued that the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law at N.J.S.A. 55:13A-1 et. seq. and the governing regulations at N.J.A.C. 5:10-1.1 et. seq. imposed a duty on the defendants to cover the radiators. The Supreme Court disagreed.
Any multi-dwelling building containing three or more apartments is subject to the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law and its regulations for maintenance of hotels and multiple dwellings. N.J.A.C. 5:10-14.3(d) does require the heating system to be covered with an insulating material or guard to protect occupants from burns. However, the Court noted that a plain reading of the text revealed that the regulation does not include radiators and, therefore, the defendants were not bound by any regulatory duty.
The Court then noted that the defendants did not maintain control over the tenant’s radiator and thus owed no duty under the common law. A landlord does have a duty to exercise reasonable care to guard against foreseeable damages arising from the use of those portions of the rental property over which a landlord retains control. In this case, the tenant’s radiator was equipped with a control valve that allowed them to regulate the heat and thus the landlord did not maintain control over the radiator. The Court held that it violated a sense of fairness to hold a landlord liable for harm caused by an item in the tenant’s control.
The Supreme Court thus upheld the dismissal of plaintiff’s Complaint.