Can liability be imposed on a landlord based on a theory of regulatory responsibility over an apartment building’s heating system and is there a common law duty to cover an apartment unit’s radiator with insulating material? This is the question the New Jersey Supreme Court considered last month when they took on the case J.H. v. R&M Tagliareni, LLC.
This case is one of unfortunate origins. In 2010, a nine-month old infant was burned by an uncovered, free standing cast iron loop radiator in an apartment owned and managed by Defendants, R&M Tagliareni, LLC and Robert & Maria Tagliareni, II, LLC (jointly referred to as “Defendant”). Suit was filed against the Defendant claiming its negligence caused the infant’s injuries.
The Defendant testified to a number of determinative facts. First, the Defendant made clear that the tenants had the ability to shut off the radiators via valves at the bottom of the radiator. Next, the Defendant affirmed that this case was unique; that no tenant had ever been burned nor had they ever asked for or complained about a cover for the radiator. Last, the Defendant attested to the fact that the building had been inspected by state agencies and by insurance companies, none of which cited the Defendant for the absence of radiator covers.
The state agency that performs such inspections is the Bureau of Housing Inspection. The inspector that had inspected the Defendant’s apartment building testified that violations are not typically issued for lack of covers on radiators and that there was no requirement for covers under the Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law.
The trial court agreed with the Defendant’s argument that the defendant did not owe a common law duty of care to provide covers for radiators. The trial court further determined that radiators were not meant to be included in the term “heating system” based on a plain reading of NJAC 5:10-14.3(d). NJAC 5:10-14.3(d) provides that “heating systems” shall be covered with an insulating material or guard to protect occupants and others from receiving burns due to chance contact. The Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court’s assessment. The Appellate Division determined that the radiator was part of the apartment’s heating system and thus a duty of care was owed to the Plaintiffs. They further determined that the Plaintiffs could argue that a duty of care was owed and breached based on NJAC 5:10-14.3(d). The Appellate Division’s decision was then appealed.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey found unpersuasive the Appellate Division’s determination that NJAC 5:10-14.3(d) imposes a regulatory duty on landlords to cover radiators with insulating material or a cover. While it was argued that a radiator was a heating system under NJAC 5:10-14.3(d), the Supreme Court found no evidence, express or implied, that the statute intended to encompass radiators. In addition, the Supreme Court refused to impose a newfound common law duty on landlords to cover all in-unit radiators. A determinative factor was the fact that the Plaintiffs maintained control over the heat emanating from the radiator. Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Appellate Division that found the existence of a new common law duty to require landlords to cover radiators with insulating material.
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