In Franklin Mutual Insurance Co. v. K.N., the New Jersey Appellate Division grappled with the difficult decision whether the mother of a mentally ill adult was liable when her daughter set fire to her condominium unit.
Defendant was the mother of Katrin, a mentally ill adult. Over the last ten years, Katrina was admitted to several psychiatric hospitals including one instance, where she was admitted to Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder and mania.
In June 2010, the defendant bought a condominium for Katrina, helped her move in, and furnished the unit, where Katrina lived alone. Over the next few months, the police were called to Katrina’s residence on several occasions for “welfare checks.” On some occasions, Katrina exhibited manic episodes and the police transported her to a hospital for psychological evaluations. Subsequently, a fire broke out in Katrina’s condominium and she stated to police that prior to the fire, she had a drink of vodka and then lit a cigarette, and speculate the fire started when she fell asleep. The fire marshal concluded that Katrina’s cigarettes were not completely extinguished and thereby ignited a fire that ultimately damaged 12 units.
Plaintiffs filed a subrogation claim, arguing that because the defendant rented her unit to her mentally ill daughter, defendant owed Katrina’s neighbor a duty to protect them from Katrina’s potentially destructive conduct. Plaintiffs also argued it was foreseeable that Katrina could cause property damage to adjoining condominium units based on her prior diagnosed mental illness. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on liability.
On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision and found no basis to impose a duty of care upon defendant. The Appellate Division acknowledged that in limited circumstances, New Jersey courts have imposed a duty to take reasonable action to guard against the acts of a third party. However, this was not applicable here as plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that defendant had sufficient knowledge to impose such a duty. Although Katrina had a clear history of mental illness, several psychiatric hospitals released her without finding that she posed a danger to herself, others, or property. Furthermore, no qualified professionals told defendant that Katrina could not live alone. Although Katrina repeatedly damaged her own property, it was not foreseeable that she would cause damage to the property of others.
Thanks to Ken Eng for his contribution to this post and please write to Mike Bono with any questions.