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Landlord May Be Liable to Tenant Injured in The Process of Changing Lightbulb in Ceiling Fixture in Common Hallway

By on September 7, 2018 in Liability with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Evelyn Delgado was injured while trying to change the lightbulb of the ceiling fixture in the entrance hallway leading to her apartment. She tried to change the lightbulb by standing on a stair, leaning over the banister. She lost her balance, fell to the floor, and injured her leg. The issue in Delgado v.  Noruthun, 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1964 (App. Div. Aug. 21, 2018), was whether the landlord could be held responsible for her injuries.

At the time of the accident, the plaintiff rented the second floor apartment of defendant’s two family nonowner occupied house in Perth Amboy. She used a common entry hallway to access the stairs to her apartment. The light fixture illuminated the hallway and stairway.

The plaintiff claimed that there was a leak in her bathroom which caused an electrical short in the hallway light. At one point, the landlord’s brother fixed the leak, but not the light. She asked the landlord’s brother to fix the light and he told her that she had to do it herself. Thus, she took matters into her own hands.

Rather than standing on a ladder, she took several steps up the staircase, leaned over the banister, and attempted to unscrew the center nut that held the light globe in place. She felt a pain in her back, lost her balance and fell to the floor, injuring her leg.

The landlord filed for summary judgment to dismiss the complaint, which motion was granted by the trial judge. The trial judge reasoned that even if the darkened hallway was a dangerous condition, the landlord did not proximately cause plaintiff’s injuries. Rather, her injuries were caused when she voluntarily tried to change the lightbulb and lost her balance, for reasons unrelated to any darkened condition of the hall. The plaintiff appealed this decision.

While recognizing, the weaknesses in plaintiff’s proofs, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court decision. It noted that the landlord has the duty to maintain and repair the facilities in or out of the tenant’s premises which are under his control. The entry hall ceiling light was in a common area under the landlord’s control and, thus, he had the duty to maintain and repair it.

The Court noted that the plaintiff had informed the landlord’s brother that the light was out and that the landlord’s brother told her to fix it herself. Taking this allegation as true, she established that the defendant landlord was on notice of the dangerous condition, i.e. an unlit hallway and staircase, and waived an opportunity to correct it. Hence, based upon these facts, she had established a breach of duty.

Next, the Court considered the issue of proximate cause. It is the plaintiff’s obligation to prove that the defendant’s breach of duty proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Plaintiff must only show that the defendant’s breach was a substantial factor contributing to her injury. While proof of foreseeability is relevant, it is not essential.

The Appellate Division rejected the trial court’s conclusion that plaintiff’s voluntary decision to fix the light broke the causal chain as a matter of law. The Court held that “[a] jury could find it was reasonably foreseeable that plaintiff would try to fix the light herself, once defendant refused to do it and told her it was her responsibility.” Further, the Court noted that it would be up to the jury to assess whether the plaintiff had comparative negligence based upon her decision to reach over the banister, rather than use a sturdy ladder, to reach the problem light. Thus, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for trial.

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Betsy G. Ramos

About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

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