N.J. Court Requires Higher Standard of Care for Fire Safety System Inspections.

In Wayne and Irene Davis v. Brickman Landscaping, Ltd., et. al., the N.J. Appellate Division discussed the standard of care applicable to fire-safety system inspection professionals. Here, plaintiffs (mother, daughter and son) were staying at a hotel in a second-floor suite from which their only means of ingress and egress was a staircase with a storage closet underneath it. The storage closet did not have any fire sprinklers installed. A lit cigarette was thrown onto landscaping mulch located next to the building.  Thereafter, a fire ignited, spread to the storage closet and up the staircase to the second floor where both children died. The plaintiffs filed suit against the companies that inspected the sprinkler and fire alarm system.

The Trial Court noted that New Jersey adopted the National Fire Protection Association’ (“NFPA”) regulations in determining the responsibilities of fire-safety inspection professionals. While the original version of the NFPA required installation of sprinklers throughout a residential building, subsequent versions only required inspectors to conduct visual examinations for normal wear and tear with no obligation to find installation flaws. Testimony revealed that the defendants (3 separate inspection companies) had periodically inspected the fire safety systems, but all failed to note that the storage closet was void of sprinklers. Plaintiffs’ expert opined that the NFPA was the minimum standard of care for sprinkler system inspections, and that inspectors have a higher standard (reasonable care). Defendants argued that there was no evidence that they violated the NFPA and plaintiffs’ expert’s testimony that a “reasonable care standard” applied was simply an unsupported “net opinion”. The Trial Court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants finding that they complied with the NFPA which was dispositive on the issue of negligence. Plaintiffs appealed the Trial Court’s decision arguing that simple compliance with NFPA is in fact not dispositive on the issue of negligence.

The Appellate Division agreed with the plaintiffs finding that the N.J. Supreme Court has announced many times that compliance with a safety regulation is not always dispositive on the issue of negligence. The risk posed by a certain trade or industry by dangerous hazards requires use of the “reasonable care” standard. The Court noted that the appropriate standard is what a reasonable member of that particular industry or community would have done. Compliance with a regulation does not prevent a finding of negligence if a reasonable person would have taken additional precautions. The Appellate Division therefore reversed the trial court and remanded the case finding a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants exercised reasonable care despite their compliance with the NFPA.

Special thanks to Andrew Marra for his contributions to this post.  For more information about this post, please contact Bob Cosgrove at rcosgrove@wcmlaw.com.