Posted On: October 23, 2006 by Cynthia N. Scharf

Water Damage From Above

Your home inspector probably advised you that it's good sense to prevent possible water damage by turning off the water to your second home when you're not in residence. But if you neglect to do so and your defective toilet floods the condominium unit downstairs, New Jersey courts may not hold you liable for the damage to your neighbor's home. In an unpublished decision, the Appellate Division declined to find that residents of multiple dwelling units had a legal duty to turn off the water when they were going to be away for more than a day. Coyne v. Price, A-3291-05T5 (App. Div. September 14, 2006).

Mr. and Mrs. Coyne lived downstairs from Mr. and Mrs. Price in a condominium "down the shore." While the Prices were at their primary home, their condo's toilet failed, flooding the Coyne's home. Although the Prices had typically turned off the water to their washing machine, they had never considered the possibility that other leakage might occur and had never turned off the water to the unit as a whole, although a turn-off valve was located in the ceiling of their unit.

Although the Coyne's insurance paid for most of the damage, they brought suit in small claims court, seeking to recover the $1000 deductible that they were forced to pay. After the trial judge ruled in the Coyne's favor, finding that the Prices should have foreseen the possibility of leakage, the Prices appealed the judgment.

Defining negligence as "conduct that creates an undue risk of harm to others," the Appellate Division found that foreseeability alone did not give rise to a legal duty but must be evaluated along with reasonableness, public policy, fairness and common sense. Because the Prices had no reason to believe that their toilet would leak in their absence, held the court, the Prices' failure to turn off the water to their unit was reasonable. Accordingly, the court declined to create a new legal duty.

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