The November 16, 2016 issue of the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Celebration, Florida, which is the master-planned community built by The Walt Disney Company in 1996. The title of the article summarized the state of affairs in Celebration as follows: “There Is Little Celebration in the Town Disney Built: Mold, leaks, rot are hurting the 1990s utopia; ‘they’re harassing my team.’” My initial thought was that if this can happen to a community built by the world’s most famous mouse, it is little wonder that a large portion of my practice involves representing community associations in lawsuits against developers and architects for construction and design deficiencies.
Community associations are often given common elements in transition that incur damage from design and/or construction deficiencies. Associations typically have limited funds. Even those with ample financial resources are usually governed by Boards whose members are keenly aware of the fact that the Association’s funds are trust monies that need to be carefully managed and wisely expended.
Most board members do not have construction experience and are not lawyers or design professionals. They often do not know what to think when advised by counsel and engineering professionals that invasive testing is needed to permit investigation and documentation of the Association’s claims. Even when confronted with evidence of water infiltration, which they suspect or know may be causing damage, many association have an initial inclination not to want to spend a lot of money on engineering and forensic investigations. Once limited, preliminary testing shows a problem exists, and litigation becomes necessary, the question becomes, “How much testing is needed to support the association’s claims?” This blog is intended to help give some perspective to boards facing such a decision.
In Federal and most State courts, admissibility of scientific expert witness testimony is governed by the “Daubert” standard articulated in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The key purpose of the Daubert standard is to ensure that the proposed expert testimony is both relevant to the issues in dispute and the evidence in support thereof is reliable.
Under Daubert, “the test of admissibility is not whether a particular scientific opinion has the best foundation, or even whether the opinion is supported by the best methodology or unassailable research. Rather, the test is whether the ‘particular opinion is based on valid and reliable methodology. The admissibility inquiry thus focuses on principles and methodology, not on conclusions generated by the principles and methodology. Once admissibility has been determined, then it is for the trier of fact to determine the credibility of the expert witness.” In re TMI Litig., 193 F.3d 613, 665 (3rd. Cir. 1999).
Generally, expert testimony is permitted when:
- The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue
- The testimony is based on sufficient facts or data
- The testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods
- The expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case
Many state courts have adopted nearly verbatim Federal Rule of Evidence 702. For example, the New Jersey Rules of Evidence state:
“If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.”
It is impossible for any association to afford to pay for its experts to invasively test every inch of a building. That is why courts allow parties to use limited invasive testing done by experts to support an opinion that the same conditions found in the limited testing exist everywhere on the buildings. This process is known as “extrapolation.”
The trial Judge is the gatekeeper of the evidence the jury gets to hear at trial. As a general matter, the use and admissibility of expert testimony based on extrapolation supporting claims of damages caused by design and construction deficiencies is based on an evaluation by the Judge of:
- The randomness of the sample
- The size of the sample
A detailed discussion of these concepts is beyond the scope of this blog. Generally, a sample must be randomly selected for its results to be fairly extrapolated. It has been said that a random sample is one in which each member of the population has an equal probability of being selected for inclusion in the sample. Absent random selection of samples, courts fear the occurrence of “selection bias.” This can be countered by proper planning. For example, if you have a case where there is suspected damage from water infiltration through exterior walls, your expert could do a reasonable number of moisture probes of each side of each building, augmented by invasive test cuts in selected locations.
The case law on allowing experts to extrapolate from their findings is extremely fact sensitive and voluminous. It is imperative that your attorney be familiar with it in order to plan the investigation with your expert. In some cases, you may even need the services of a statistical expert. What is clear is that the Association needs to have counsel and its experts devise a plan for how to provide sufficient testing to satisfy the Daubertrequirements for admissibility. That process will then allow the Association to understand how much money it needs to spend in order to prove its case and collect damages through mediation or trial.
Buying a home is one of the most rewarding, yet potentially costly, life experiences. Construction takes months, sometimes years, and despite the existence of building codes and municipal oversight, mistakes happen. Due to the concealed nature of construction (e.g. important construction elements get closed up by siding, cladding, and drywall), mistakes are hidden and unidentified until the consequences of those mistakes begin to manifest. Water intrusion is the hallmark of construction defects and is almost always an indicator that construction deficiencies exist. Unfortunately, by the time the water manifests itself inside the house, the builder and/or seller are long gone, leaving the homeowner with the expense of performing investigations and subsequent repairs.
So what should a prospective homebuyer look for when evaluating homes to purchase? First, an understanding of basic home construction is necessary. The name of the game is simple: manage water. The intent behind every home design is water management and drainage. Thus, regardless of whether a house is clad with stucco, stone, brick, or vinyl siding, all those systems have to be installed in such a way as to protect the home from the elements and manage any water that gets behind the cladding system. While visual observations from the exterior will not reveal whether necessary drainage provisions exist behind the cladding (i.e. building paper, flashings, and moisture barriers); certain drainage provisions are nevertheless observable. For instance, once water gets behind the cladding it needs to be able to drain back out through small holes at the base of the cladding. Therefore, you should be able to observe spaces or holes around the areas where the cladding terminates at the base of the home.
Additionally, proper slope is extremely important for adequately managing water and preventing water intrusion. Balconies, decks, exterior window sills, decorative trim, and any other protruding surface that has the potential to hold water must be sloped away from the structure to direct water away from the house. Otherwise, water is directed towards the building and will find a way inside.
Any signs of cracking, buckling, bending, or sprawling of any piece of the exterior cladding should be investigated further. While home inspectors are licensed and trained, they are not professional engineers and do not always recognize the existence or potential for construction defects. If you are serious about purchasing a home, hire a professional engineer to perform a visual inspection and draft a report. It will be money well spent and may save you from buying a home that will require expensive repairs soon after you move in.
An action for nuisance may be brought against a public entity unhampered by the TCA. Private nuisance is but one possible theory for recovery of damages caused by the invasion of one’s interest in the private use and enjoyment of land. That interest may be invaded by more than one type of conduct, i.e., the conduct may be intentional, it may be unintentional but caused by negligent or reckless conduct, or it may result from an abnormally dangerous activity for which there is strict liability. One is subject to liability for private nuisance if the invasion is either:
(a) intentional and unreasonable, or
(b) unintentional and otherwise actionable under the rules controlling liability for negligent or reckless conduct, or for abnormally dangerous conditions or activities.
[Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 822 (1979).]
The conduct necessary to make the actor liable for a private nuisance may consist of an act or a failure to act under circumstances in which the actor is under a duty to take positive action to prevent or abate an interference. Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 824 (1979). An invasion is intentional if the actor purposely causes it or knows that the invasion is substantially certain to result from his conduct. An intentional invasion of another’s use is unreasonable if:
(a) the gravity of the harm outweighs the utility of the actor’s conduct, or
(b) the harm caused by the conduct is serious and the financial burden of compensating for this and similar harm to others would not make the continuation of the conduct not feasible.
[Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 826.].
Water discharge from a broken storm drain pipe is most likely an actionable nuisance. See, e.g., City of Oxford v. Spears, 228 Miss. 433 (1956) (There is no question that an invasion of one’s interest in the use of downstream waters may constitute a nuisance); Sterling Iron and Zinc Co. v. Sparks Manufacturing Co., 55 N.J.Eq. 824 (E. & A. 1896) (New Jersey long ago recognized that the pollution of a watercourse may constitute an actionable nuisance); Bengivenga v. Plainfield, 128 N.J.L. 418 (E. & A. 1942) (municipalities were held liable for nuisance resulting in water pollution, although the legal analysis upon which liability was based, active wrongdoing, is now outdated); Borough of Westville v. Whitney Home Builders, 40 N.J. Super. 62, 68 (App. Div. 1956) (Our courts have held that the discharge of treated sewage effluent into a running stream is not necessarily an unreasonable riparian use in today’s civilization, but that it may be unreasonable if the harm from doing so outweighs the benefit).
Presented with the question of whether a public entity can be liable for a nuisance as recognized by the TCA, our Supreme Court concluded that it is for two reasons: First, sections of the Tort Claims Act may be interpreted as making public entities liable for nuisance under the standards provided by the Act, and second, in light of the history of municipal liability in this area, the Supreme Court perceived no intent to eliminate this liability.
With respect to the statutory recognition and continuation of the nuisance cause of action, the two sections of the act implicated are N.J.S.A. 59:4-2 and N.J.S.A. 59:2-2. The former creates liability for injury caused by the dangerous condition of a public entity’s property. Nothing in this section has been construed to impose liability upon a public entity for a dangerous condition of its public property if the action the entity took to protect against the condition or the failure to take such action was not palpably unreasonable. Thus, this section imposes liability upon a municipality in its status as property owner for nuisance where its actions can be found to be “palpably unreasonable.”
In sum, an action in nuisance may be maintained against a municipality under and subject to the standards of the Tort Claims Act, so long as Plaintiff shows that the action taken or failure to act by the public entity was palpably unreasonable. See, e.g., Lyons v. Twp. of Wayne, 185 N.J. 426, 434 (2005) (“When analyzing a nuisance . . . wrongful conduct is not limited to the creation of the condition. Rather, a failure to physically remove or legally abate that condition, resulting in the physical invasion of another’s property, also constitutes wrongful conduct.”); Gould & Eberhardt, Inc. v. City of Newark, 6 N.J. 240, 243 (1951) (“[A] municipality does not have the right to collect surface water and discharge it upon private property in greater quantity and with greater force than would occur from natural flow, so as to cause substantial injury.”); Sheppard v. Twp. of Frankford, 261 N.J. Super. 5, 8 (App. Div. 1992) (noting that injunctive relief was appropriate because unreasonable discharge of storm waters by township onto plaintiffs’ property created continuing nuisance); Black v. Borough of Atlantic Highlands, 263 N.J. Super. 445, 453 (App. Div. 1993) (allowing nuisance cause of action for failing to prune crab apple trees creating dangerous condition on adjacent private property).
In Russo Farms v. Vineland Bd. of Educ., 144 N.J. 84 (N.J. 1996), the Plaintiffs brought a lawsuit against, inter alia, the Vineland Board of Education (the Board) and the City of Vineland (the City) for damages to their crops and farmland from flooding that resulted from the improper siting and construction of a public school located across the street from their property and by an inadequate drainage system on a bordering street. Plaintiffs claimed that the Board and City were liable under a nuisance theory because the Board and City’s use of their property invaded plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their land. The Court noted that invasion was a physical invasion, which ordinarily sounds in trespass, but “the flooding of the plaintiff’s land, which is a trespass, is also a nuisance if it is repeated or of long duration.” See also Hennessy v. Carmony, 50 N.J. Eq. 616, 618 (Ch. 1892) (throwing water on another’s property once constitutes a trespass, “to continue to do so constitutes a nuisance”).
When a court finds that a continuing nuisance has been committed, it implicitly holds that the defendant is committing a new tort, including a new breach of duty, each day, triggering a new statute of limitations. That new tort is an “alleged present failure” to remove the nuisance, and since this failure occurs each day that the defendant does not act, the defendant’s alleged tortious inaction constitutes a continuous nuisance for which a cause of action accrues anew each day. See also Sheppard v. Township of Frankford, 261 N.J. Super. 5, 8-9 (App. Div. 1992) (noting that disposal of water runoff onto plaintiff’s property created continuing nuisance).
It is pretty well settled that periodic flooding due to defective construction of a drainage system constitutes a continuing tort. The Russo Farms court held that a nuisance is continuing when it is the result of a condition that can be physically removed or legally abated. In such a case, it is realistic to impute a continuing duty to the defendant to remove the nuisance, and to conclude that each new injury includes all elements of a nuisance, including a new breach of duty. On the other hand, when the nuisance cannot physically be removed, it is unfair to impose a continuing, impossible to fulfill duty to remove the nuisance.
Accordingly, the continued flooding of a landowner’s property would be considered an actionable continuous nuisance. See Russo Farms, supra, 144 N.J. at, 97-105 (holding that TCA permits nuisance and negligence causes of action for damages caused on private property by dangerous condition on public entity’s property created by school drainage and municipal storm-water drainage system); Medford Lakes, supra, 90 N.J. at 591-96 (allowing action for nuisance for damage to lake caused by discharge from municipally owned and operated sewage treatment plant); Saldana v. DiMedio, 275 N.J. Super. 488, 499 (App. Div. 1994) (allowing cause of action against municipality for dangerous condition on its property for fire that spread from city-owned abandoned building to privately-owned property); Sheppard v. Township of Frankford, 261 N.J. Super. 5 (App. Div. 1992) (in a nuisance case that involved a public entity’s disposal of storm-water runoff onto private property the court found a continuous nuisance existed where the storm-water drainage system at issue “enhanced, concentrated, and sped up the flow of the storm water into the drainage ditch,” thereby causing flood damage on the plaintiff’s property).
On March 11, 2008, in the matter of Camelot Condominium Association, Inc v. Dryvit Systems, Inc., pending before the Superior Court of New jersey, Docket No. BER-L-012457-04, a jury entered a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff and against Dryvit Systems, Inc (“Dryvit”) for violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Dryvit Systems is the largest manufacturer of Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems for residential and commercial construction in the United States.
With settlements the Plaintiff obtained before and during trial from other defendants, the total irecovery for the Plaintiff following the jury verdict was $5,046,000.
The case involved a joint repair project done in 1998 on what was then a 16 year old high rise building clad with roughly 300 panels coated with Dryvit’s EIFS. The jury returned a verdict that charged Dryvit with knowledge that the Dryvit EIFS finish coating on the buildng’s exterior panels softened when exposed to substantial water penetration. That softening caused cohesive failures at critical caulk joints, which resulted in openings for water to penetrate inside the building and cause catastrophic damage to the framing and sheathing on the building.
The jury found that Dryvit made knowing omissions and affirmative misrepresentations of material fact in connection with the repair of the Exterior Insulation and Finish System (EIFS) on the building located in Hackensack, New Jersey. This is the first time in New Jersey that an EIFS manufacturer has been subjected to a jury verdict for violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. There will be no appeal.
After a bench trial, a judge in New Haven, Connecticut ruled that the seller of a house that had obvious, visible mold damage – black mold stains in the utility room and water stained and rotted wood inside – had intentionally concealed the existence of this problem, and was liable to the buyers for the cost to prevent further water intrusion, the cost to repair the damage caused by past water intrusion, and $25,000 for emotional distress. The case is Camerone v. Phillips, 2007 WL 241258, (Conn. Super. Jan. 17, 2007), The award of emotional distress damages was later vacated. Camarone v. Philips, WL 2081330 (Conn. Super. April 17, 2007).
The plaintiffs purchased a home in North Haven, Connecticut from the sellers in 2003. Upon moving in, they immediately noticed severe water seepage in the lower level of the house, and brought suit against the sellers for failing to disclose the problems. Sellers argued that the buyers had hired a home inspector, and relied upon his inspection, and proceeded to closing, despite the fact that the inspection noted several potential trouble spots. The court specifically found that the seller was not truthful, and based its findings largely on discrepancies between the MLS description and the seller’s testimony. For example, the MLS listing described the home as “mint condition” and “like new”. New walls, new carpeting and new paint were highlighted. At trial, however, the seller testified that the items were not all new, in fact some of the items had been installed in 1999. The seller testified that he never saw anything that indicated that the home was subject to water seepage. The court stated in its opinion that it did not believe him.
The court specifically found that the seller could not have been unaware of the serious water problems and resulting mold throughout the house. Carpet which had been installed just before the sale was soaking wet when lifted. There was black mold in the utility closet, obscured by boxes and storage items. Wood support beams were visibly stained and rotted through, in areas where sheet rock was missing from the walls, so the seller could not have missed it. The evidence appears to have been overwhelming that the house was in terrible condition.. The court did not discuss the contents of the home inspector’s report. It appears that the defendant’s deception and untruthfulness was hugely significant and overcame any argument that the home inspector should have noted these deficiencies. The judge specifically found that the seller/defendant’s conduct was “outrageous” and “intentional” and that his actions exceeded “all bounds usually tolerated by decent society.”
The buyer was awarded compensatory damages of $96,282 to compensate for the cost of waterproofing the house, repairing the damage and remediating the mold problem. The court initially awarded $25,000 in damages for emotional distress, but vacated that order four months later when it was pointed out that the Plaintiff had not introduced any evidence of her emotional distress. The court found that it was “unduly swayed” by the photographic evidence, and by the Plaintiffs emotional state when she testified.
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.