New Jersey Appellate Court Holds Negligence Claims May be Pursued Against Apartment Landlords for Failure to Cover Radiators

In J.H. v. R&M Tagliareni, LLC, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, examined a lawsuit regarding burns to an infant. The infant was staying at the apartment of his stepmother’s sister and sleeping on a bed next to a radiator. While sleeping, the infant rested his head against the radiator and suffered third-degree burns. The burns resulted in permanent scarring.

The radiator was controlled by a shut-off valve, and became extremely hot once the valve was opened. There was no thermostat to control the temperature of the radiator. While some radiators in the apartment building had been covered several years prior to the accident, the current property owners had not provided covers to tenants, nor had they been requested to provide such covers. The trial court granted summary judgment in the defendants’ favor, holding that the defendant property owners had no actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition and therefore did not violate a duty of care to the plaintiff. In support of this determination, the trial court noted that the property owners had received no complaints regarding the radiators, had never been found to violate code with regard to the radiators, and were not aware that a child was staying in the apartment. The trial court also emphasized the fact that the tenants had control over the radiators through the shut-off valve.

In reviewing the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division held that the shut-off valve was insufficient to give tenants’ control over the radiator, as the valve could only turn the radiator turn on or off, without any control over the radiator’s temperature. The Court further observed that while the apartment residents were asleep, the only way for the tenants to control the temperature would be to wake up and turn off the shut-off valve, which was unrealistic. The Court concluded that in the absence of a thermostat, it was highly impractical for occupants to control the heat coming from radiators. The Court further noted that the evidence reflected that covers would have been sufficient to protect residents from burns, and would not have been unduly burdensome.

The Court further observed that the absence of tenant complaints or code violations regarding the radiators was not a defense to the plaintiff’s allegations. Such issues are not determinative of whether a defendant knew or should have known of a dangerous condition. More importantly, the question of whether a landlord knew or should have known of a dangerous condition is irrelevant under New Jersey law when the landlord created the dangerous condition and has control over it.

The Court next addressed whether the insurer’s conduct violated a state regulation requiring apartment heating systems to be insulated to protect against burns. The trial court found that the regulation did not apply to radiators, as radiators were not included in a list of elements of a heating system contained in the regulation. The Appellate Division observed that there was nothing to indicate that the list was exhaustive. The Court further noted that requiring radiators to be insulated is consistent with the purpose of the regulation, as tenants are more likely to come into contact with radiators than any other element of the heating system. The Court therefore determined that the regulation imposed a duty of care upon the property owners with regard to insulation of the radiators.

For these reasons, the Court held that a jury should be able to consider whether the defendant property owners violated a duty of care under the common law and the aforementioned regulation. The Court therefore reversed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment in the defendants’ favor, and remanded the case for trial.