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Brandt v. Yeager

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle County

March 17, 1964

Eleanor Helm BRANDT and Walter C. Brandt, her husband, Plaintiffs,
v.
Harold C. YEAGER and Betty Yeager a/k/a Elizabeth Yeager, his wife, and Ralph Trader and Lena B. Trader, his wife, Defendants.

Page 769

On defendants' motion for summary judgment.

Albert L. Simon and Wilfred J. Smith, Jr., Wilmington, for plaintiffs.

Hugh L. Corroon (of Berl, Potter & Anderson), Wilmington, for defendants.

STIFTEL, Judge.

This is an action for damages based upon the negligence of defendant landlords in failing to warn the injured tenant plaintiff, Eleanor Helm Brandt, of a latent dangerous condition or for their failure to make repairs properly on a cesspool. Defendants Harold C. Yeager and [57 Del. 328] Betty Yeager, his wife, moved for summary judgment.

In February of 1958, Eleanor Helm Brandt and her late husband entered into an oral lease with the Yeagers covering a single family home and back yard at 105 Wildel Avenue, Minquadale, Delaware. Approximately two years thereafter, on October 18, 1959, the plaintiff, Eleanor Helm Brandt, went into the yard to hang the family laundry, and while she was so engaged, the ground beneath her left foot opened, and plaintiff's left leg fell into the earth. As a result, plaintiff reptured two intervertebral discs.

Prior to this tenancy, the premises were occupied by James A. Unsworth, his wife and daughter, Betty L. Revel. At that time, the landlords occupied a home next door to them. During the summer of 1957, Betty Revel's foot sank into the ground past her ankle when the earth in the back yard opened unexpectedly. Betty Revel indicates that her late father, James A. Unsworth, went to the Yeager home to report the incident, but she has no personal knowledge as to whether or not her father actually reported the matter to the Yeagers. A circular wire fence about two feet high and three or four feet in diameter was erected around the caved-in area by the late James A. Unsworth when no action was taken by the landlords to correct the condition. The Revel and Unsworth affidavits indicate that they vacated the premises on February 1, 1958, and that the cave-in occurred during the summer of 1957.

When plaintiff entered the premises on February 25, 1958, there was no fence present. In fact, it was not until January of 1962 that she learned that the late James A. Unsworth had erected a wire fence around a portion of the earth in the yard and that the fence had remained there until approximately February 1, 1958, when

Page 770

the [57 Del. 329] Unsworths vacated the premises. [1] However, in her deposition of November 11, 1960, plaintiff says she was told by her neighbors that a cave-in had occurred during the prior tenancy, although it does not clearly appear whether plaintiff was informed of this cave-in before or after her injury. [2] Defendants' affidavits recite that they had no knowledge of the existence of any letent dangerous condition at the time of the letting. They admit, however, that they lived next door to the Unsworths at the time the fence was erected.

During the winter of 1959, some stoppage occurred so that the cesspool on the premises leased by the Brandts did not function properly. The landlords had the cesspool cleaned within a short time after plaintiffs complained. Several months later, during the 1959 summer, a second cave-in occurred in the back year, near the cesspool. The defendant landlords were notified. They did nothing. After a week or two, plaintiff's husband filled the hole. Plaintiff believed that this cave-in, as well as the third cave-in, were caused by the leakage or collapse of a terra cotta pipe leading from the house to the cesspool.

Prior to the second cave-in, [3] plaintiff had gone into the [57 Del. 330] yard frequently without incident. She had been accustomed to placing the clothes to dry at least twice a week and her husband and son never encountered any difficulty in mowing the lawn in this area. After the second cave-in, they avoided the cesspool area where the cave-in had occurred.

When the tenants moved into the premises, nothing was said about repairs. However, the landlords have caused the premises to be repaired on certain occasions, had often promised to make repairs after the premises were occupied, but failed to do so, and had on still other occasions refused to repair.

Plaintiff argues that summary judgment should be denied for two reasons: First, she claims the case contains a material issue of fact as to whether defendants neglected their duty to warn plaintiff of a latent dangerous condition; second, she claims an issue of fact is presented on the question of negligence of the defendants in cleaning the cesspool eight months before the accident.

This was an oral lease. No agreement had been entered into between the parties in reference to repairs. The landlords had caused certain repairs to be made on the premises during the tenancy but this cannot be construed as any obligation on the part of the landlords to make any other repairs. Shegda v. Hartford Conn. Trust Co.,131 Conn. 186, 38 A.2d 668, 670; 3 A Thompson on Real Property, 1959 Replacement, § 1230, pp. 132, 140.

Normally, there is no implied covenant that leased premises are safe for habitation and use or will remain in that condition. Leech v. Husbands, 4 W.W. Harr. 362,152 A. 729; Grochowski v. Stewart, 3 Storey 330,169 A.2d 14, 16. As a general rule, however, a landlord may

Page 771

be held responsible for injuries occurring to his tenant [57 Del. 331] where he knew or had reason to believe a latent defect existed at the time of the letting, and failed to disclose or concealed such information from the tenant; provided, however, that the tenant did not know or have reason to believe that such a condition existed. Shegda v. Hartford Conn. Trust Co., supra, 38 A.2d at p. 670; Keegan v. G. Heilman Brewing Co.,129 Minn. 496, 152 N.W. 877, 878, L.R.A.1916F, 1149; see, 32 Am.Jur., 'Landlord and Tenant', § 671; Restatement of Torts, § 358. Normally, the burden is upon the tenant to allege and prove an absence of knowledge of the latent defect in order to take the case out of the general rule of 'caveat emptor'. See, Masterson v. Atherton,149 Conn. 302, 179 A.2d 592, 595.

The landlords claim that they knew nothing about the first cave-in which occurred when the Unsworths occupied the premises. However, the inferences point to their knowledge of the first cave-in. First of all, they lived next door to the Unsworths and it is unlikely that they would not have seen the fence that surrounded the hole. As owners of the leased premises, it could reasonably be assumed that they would have made inquiry. Furthermore, the former tenants' affidavit indicated that the fence was present on the leased premises when they vacated them on February 1, 1958. A few days later, the present plaintiff moved into the same premises and the fence was not there. It can reasonably be assumed that the defendants either removed the fence themselves or caused it to be removed during the interim. On these facts, a satisfactory inference is raised of the knowledge of the first cave-in and thus a possible dangerous condition which the handlords were obligated to disclose to the tenants when they let the premises.

Defendants argue that plaintiff should not be entitled to maintain her action because she had knowledge [57 Del. 332] of the first cave-in when she moved into the premises. The plaintiff states, however, that the record does not satisfactorily demonstrate this knowledge on her part. In fact, the tenant states in her affidavit that she first learned of the fence around the first cave-in in 1962, years after she had leased the premises, and that furthermore, her testimony did not place the date she learned about the first cave-in. Although the question was clear, plaintiff's answer to the question appears partially unresponsive (see footnote 2). Thus, for the purposes of this motion, I must assume that the tenant did not have knowledge of the first cave-in at the time of the letting.

However, a tenant should not be entitled to hold his landlord responsible for subsequent injuries based on the failure to disclose a latent defect at the time of the letting or thereafter if the tenant subsequently obtains information about the premises which ordinarily would require him to investigate the condition of the premises. 32 Am.Jur., 'Landlord and Tenant', § 671, p. 542; 1 Anno.Cas. 680. In the instant case, the plaintiff and her late husband knew of the presence of the cesspool. At the time of the accident, they had knowledge of the second cave-in; Manes v. Hines & McNair Hotels,184 Tenn. 210, 197 S.W.2d 889, 890; and apparently knew that the cause was a leaking terra cotta pipe which connected with the cesspool. Furthermore, plaintiff states that her husband had indicated to her that the third cave-in was also due to a leaking terra cotta pipe. [4]

[57 Del. 333] It was the responsibility of plaintiffs to examine the premises after the second

Page 772

cave-in in order to ascertain whether ...


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