Monday, November 18, 2019
That Doctrine, Presiding Justice Rubin Says, Does Not Apply in Wrongful Death Action Against Lessor Which Furnished Television Set That Caught on Fire, With Smoke Being Deadly to Tenant
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has reversed a judgment in a wrongful death case based on imposition of strict liability on the lessor of a furnished apartment in which a television set caught fire, with the smoke proving fatal to the tenant.
A jury assessed damages at $3 million. With the crediting of $1 million paid by the set’s manufacturer in a settlement with the tenant’s mother, Shirley Oliver, and adjusting the award to reflect the jury’s finding of 20 percent fault on the part of the tenant, Lauren Humphrey, the judgment was for $1.4 million.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo denied a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, just as he had denied defendant Worldwide Corporate Housing, L.P.’s motion for summary judgment and for a directed verdict on strict liability.
In Thursday’s unpublished opinion, Presiding Justice Laurence D. Rubin of Div. Five drew attention to the California Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in Peterson v. Superior Court. There, it was held that strict liability did not apply in a case where a guest at a motel slipped and fell in the bathtub while she was showering.
Oliver relied on a 1972 Court of Appeal opinion in Fakhoury v. Magner in which strict liability was found on the part of the lessor of an apartment. The tenant was injured when a couch in her furnished apartment collapsed.
“We decline to follow Fakhoury but rather conclude, under the reasoning of Peterson, strict liability does not apply here.”
He went on to say:
“Plaintiff attempts to draw a distinction between defects in the premises (the bathtub in Peterson) and a defective furnishing (television in the present case) provided by a landlord. We see nothing in Peterson that would allow for different treatment.”
The jurist pointed out that the Supreme Court in Peterson expressly overruled its 1985 decision in Becker v. IRM Corp.—which had relied on Fakhoury. In Becker, a lessor was found strictly liable to a tenant injured by a defective shower door.
Supreme Court Quoted
Rubin quoted the California Supreme Court as saying in its 2012 opinion in O’Neil v. Crane Co. (which quoted the 1963 landmark decision in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc.) that the purpose of strict liability “is to insure that the costs of injuries resulting from defective products are borne by the manufacturers that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves.”
The presiding justice provided this discussion:
“By contrast, landlords are not obligated insure the safety of their tenants. Nor, on this record, would holding landlords strictly liable lead to safer products or the spreading of loss through the chain of commerce. Whether the defect is with a fixture or a furnishing, it does not always follow that landlord has the ability to exert pressure upon the manufacturer to make the product safe. A defendant landlord often has no continuing business relationship with manufacturers that would allow it to share the costs of insuring the safety of the tenant.”
Peterson Is Controlling
“We hold that Peterson precludes strict liability against a landlord of a furnished apartment where, as on the facts here, a tenant is injured by a defective furnishing. The trial court erred in denying Landlord’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.”
The case is Oliver v. Worldwide Corporate Housing, L.P., B291230.
Paul Andrew Elkort of Moranga & Morgenstern and Robert A. Olson and Mark J. Poster of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland represented the lessor. Roland Wrinkle and Robert B. Reagan Jr. of Grassini & Wrinkle were attorneys for the plaintiff.
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