Does an Owner-Landlord of a single family residence have a duty to a tenant to maintain, and thus periodically inspect, a furnace to prevent a hazardous condition?

In Meier v. D’Ambrose, the trial judge concluded that the defendant owner-landlord had not breached any duty to the tenant who died from smoke inhalation from a fire that occurred at the house. On April 28, 2011, our Appellate Division ruled that there was such a duty and therefore reversed the trial judge who had granted summary judgment. Our Appellate Division reported that the defendant landlord was the owner of a single family home which he had purchased for investment purposes. At the time of the fire, the house had the same furnace that was in place when defendant purchased the property. During the intervening eight years, defendant never had the furnace inspected and only arranged for its repair on one occasion.

The Appellate Division indicated that the relationship of the parties was defined by the lease. The lease required the tenant to “{t}ake good care of the House and all equipment and fixtures in it” and to “keep the furnace clean.” The lease required that defendant “make any necessary repairs and replacements to the vital facilities serving the House within a reasonable time after notice by the Tenant.” When the tenant detected a problem with lack of heat in the house, defendant took on the responsibility of hiring a repairman to fix the furnace. Furthermore, the lease retained for defendant the right of access to the property to “inspect the House {and} make necessary repairs.” No similar language in the lease imposed a duty on the tenant to inspect and make necessary repairs. The language of the lease did not shift responsibility for inspection and maintenance of the furnace to the tenant.

Considering all of the factors in this particular case, the Appellate Division ruled that it is appropriate to impose a duty upon the lessor (landlord) to maintain and inspect the furnace. In the absence of a lease provision to the contrary, which might affect responsibility for maintaining the furnace and hence potential liability as between a landlord and a tenant, the Appellate Division ruled that the defendant landlord had a duty to the decedent to maintain the furnace and, thus, to inspect it periodically to ensure that it was in safe operating condition and not creating a fire hazard. The Appellate Division further concluded that the record did not establish that a municipal inspection at the inception of the lease fulfilled defendant’s duty to inspect the furnace periodically. The Appellate Division concluded that having failed to inspect the furnace in the eight years of the landlord’s ownership of the property, the defendant landlord was not entitled to summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s claim of negligence.