The Superior Court recently vacated an order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant-landlord who failed to install smoke detectors in a residential rental unit, which led to a fire that subsequently claimed the lives of three individuals. Echeverria v. Holley, 142 A.3d 29 (Pa. Super. 2016), rehearing denied 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 460 (Pa. Super. Ct. Aug. 15, 2016). This matter involved a fire in a two-unit, multi-family residential rental property which occurred in October 2010. The landlord purchased the property in 2003 and rented it out to tenants performing only minor repairs at the property until selling it in July 2010. The subsequent owner purchased the property three months before the fire and performed no modifications or repair work before the fire occurred.
The plaintiffs attempted to recover using two theories: common law negligence for failing to install smoke detectors and negligently failing to maintain electrical wiring at the rental property. The landlord preliminary objected to the common law negligence theory arguing they owed no duty to install smoke detectors under Pennsylvania law. The plaintiffs opposed the objections arguing that installing smoke detectors was part of a landlord's duty to maintain a rental premises in safe condition for occupants. The lower court sustained the landlord's objections and dismissed the common law negligence claim after concluding that the installation of smoke detectors did not fall within a landlord's general duty to protect his/her tenants. The plaintiffs thereafter proceeded only on their faulty wiring theory. The landlord subsequently filed for summary judgment alleging the plaintiffs could not prove that the fire was caused by faulty wiring, which the plaintiffs conceded. Summary judgment was granted, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The Superior Court reversed the lower Court with respect to the common law negligence claim. In doing so, it acknowledged the well-settled law that a landlord owes a duty to protect tenants from injury or loss arising out of a negligent failure to maintain a rental property in safe condition. The Superior Court provided an in depth analysis of the difference between negligence law in landlord tenant actions (specifically of a claim pursued under a theory of a breach of the implied warranty of habitability) versus a claim for ordinary negligence. These two theories require a plaintiff to prove different elements and also avail a plaintiff of different remedies. The former theory allows only contract damages, while the latter allows damages for personal injury.
The Court ultimately concluded the plaintiffs had alleged sufficient facts, if proved, to support a finding that a dangerous condition existed at the leased premises (i.e. the absence of smoke detectors), that the dangerous condition violated the implied warranty of habitability (or other statutory regulations), that the landlord was aware of the dangerous condition and failed to exercise reasonable care to correct it and that the absence of the detectors led to the death of the occupants.
Comment: In reaching this conclusion, the Superior Court found that a landlord is under a duty to maintain his or her property in a safe condition, which is a standard sufficiently broad enough to include a property lacking smoke detection devices. We expect that plaintiffs' attorneys will claim this ruling imposes an absolute duty on landlords to install smoke detectors within their rental units.
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Sara L. De Long