In Daly v 9 E. 36th LLC, a New York court wrestled with the issue of whether an apartment building has a duty to update its electrical system to meet the modern electrical needs of tenants, and the question of who is responsible when electrical overuse by a tenant results in a fire.
The plaintiff in this case was a tenant in the defendant’s building, who was injured by a fire in his rent-stabilized studio apartment. The fire was described in the fire incident report as originating “in an area of electrical wiring”; the report also noted the presence of “multiple extension cords plugged in to one outlet with a power strip.”
The apartment building was built in the 1930s and the plaintiff’s apartment had three electrical outlets in the main living space, with additional ones in the hall, the bathroom, and the kitchen. No interior electrical upgrade had ever been done to the apartment, although the plaintiff made several requests to the building to install more outlets. In addition, the plaintiff had shown the superintendent that the existing receptacles were in disrepair. Plaintiff told the superintendent that he “didn’t feel comfortable with using the extension cords,” and did not use them for long periods of time because they would get hot.
From all accounts the fire was caused by the overuse of the electrical outlets in the apartment. Plaintiff argued that the building’s decision not to upgrade the electricity in his apartment, despite the apartment’s history and his requests over the years, was a breach of the duty to keep the building safe and functional for all tenants.
The building filed a motion for summary judgment in New York County Supreme Court, and the court denied the motion. On appeal, the majority of the court agreed that a jury should decide whether plaintiff’s lifestyle and electrical consumption are above and beyond the reasonable needs of any modern tenant, and whether the building had a duty that it breached to keep the apartment building, and plaintiff’s apartment, reasonably safe.
The dissenting opinion, however, was that “rather than moderating his use of power to conform to the building’s electrical capacity (or at least using different outlets for different appliances), plaintiff was entitled to have defendant upgrade the building’s wiring to accommodate his demand.” The dissent concluded that summary judgment should have been granted on the ground that plaintiff’s negligent use of extension cords to operate numerous appliances simultaneously, as opposed to any alleged defect in the apartment’s electrical wiring, was the sole cause of the fire. In its conclusion, the dissent found plaintiff’s “lifestyle and electrical consumption” must still be in accord with the building’s electrical capacity.
Based on the 3-2 decision, it will be interesting to see if this decision winds up with the Court of Appeals. Thanks to George Parpas for his contribution to this post and please write to Mike Bono with any questions.