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Martineza v. Towne Estates Condominium Owners Association, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Delaware

May 28, 2014

LISA ANN MARTINEZA, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWNE ESTATES CONDOMINIUM OWNERS ASSOCIATION, INC., et al., Defendants. TERRANCE BOWMAN and JANELLE N. STEVENSON, Third-Party Plaintiffs,
v.
PETTINARO CONSTRUCTION CO., et al. Third-Party Defendants.

Timothy A Dillon, Esq., McCann & Wall, LLC, Wilmington, DE; Jenimae Almquist, Esq. (argued), Messa & Associates, P.C., Philadelphia, PA, attorneys for the Plaintiff.

Kevin J. Connors, Esq. (argued), Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Wilmington, DE, attorney for the Defendants Towne Estates Condominium Owners Association, Inc., Towne Estates Condominium Association, Towne Estates Council, Conway Management Group, LLC, and Conway Management LLC.

Joseph S. Naylor, Esq. (argued), Swartz Campbell, LLC, Wilmington, DE, attorney for the Defendants Terrance Bowman and Janelle Bowman.

David G. Culley, Esq. (argued), Tybout Redfearn & Pell, Wilmington, DE, attorney for the Defendant Pettinaro Construction, Inc.

Donald L Gouge, Jr., Esq. (argued), Donald L. Gouge, Jr., LLC, Wilmington, DE, attorney for the Defendants William R. Dennis, Jr. and Dennis Home Inspections, Inc.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RICHARD G. ANDREWS, District Judge.

Presently before the Court for disposition are Defendants Terrance Bowman and Janelle N. Stevenson's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 138), Third-Party Defendants Dennis Home Inspections, Inc., and William R. Dennis, Jr.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 136), Defendants Conway Management Group LLC, Conway Management LLC, Towne Estates Condominium Association, Towne Estates Condominium Owners Association Inc., and Towne Estates Council's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 143), and Third-Party Defendant Pettinaro Construction Co., Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 133). These matters have been fully briefed. (D.I. 139, 140, 155, 172, 151, 166, 167, 173, 144, 145, 157, 158, 174, 134, 137, 151, 156, 164, 168, 185, 188). The Court heard oral argument on the motions on April 17, 2014. (D.I. 189). For the reasons set forth herein, the Defendants' and the Third-Party Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment are GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

BACKGROUND

Procedural Background

Lisa Ann Martineza ("Plaintiff') filed this action against the Defendants Terrance Bowman, Janelle N. Stevenson, Towne Estates Condominium Owners Association, Inc., Towne Estates Condominium Association, Towne Estates Council, Emory Hill Real Estate Services, Inc., Conway Management Group LLC, Conway Management LLC, and Curtissa Mack on June 20, 2012. (D.I. 1). Emory Hill Real Estate Services, Inc. was dismissed from the case with prejudice on May 29, 2013. (D.I. 81). The Defendants Terrance Bowman and Janelle N. Stevenson then filed a Third-Party complaint against Pettinaro Construction Co., Inc., Dennis Home Inspections, Inc., and William R. Dennis, Jr. (D.I. 82).

The Defendants

Towne Estates is a 111 unit condominium complex located in Wilmington, Delaware. (D.I. 1 at 4). It was built by Defendant Pettinaro in about 1988. (D.I. 82 at 3). Defendant Mr. Bowman purchased the condominium unit at issue in about 2004 with the intent that his fiancee, Defendant Janelle Stevenson, and he would live there once they were married. (D.I. 155 at 8). In 2006, after Mr. and Mrs. Bowman[1] lived at the unit for a period of time, Mr. Bowman let the unit to Defendant Curtissa Mack.[2] Ms. Mack rented the unit from 2006 to late August 2011 Id. At all relevant times the Towne Estates Defendants "owned, operated, managed, maintained, controlled and/or were responsible for the safety" of the condominium complex. (D.I. 1 at 2). The Conway Defendants were contracted by the Towne Estates Defendants to manage the condominium complex.

The Incident

On August 15, 2011, the Plaintiff, who had been hired by Ms. Curtissa Mack to help clean and repair the condominium unit, fell at least ten feet after reaching across a second floor balcony railing to drop a bag of trash to the lower floor. (D.I. 155 at 8). Because of the accident, the Plaintiff "suffered multiple fractures of [her] wrists, hips, pelvis, and ribs, a grade 3 liver laceration, and a traumatic head injury resulting in memory impairment." Id. at 9.

The balcony railing was designed to be removable, as the condominium layout required that any furniture being moved to the second floor had to be transported through the balcony opening. Id. at 8. When the apartment was initially built, the balcony railing had been attached by a lag hook system, which was designed by the third-party defendant Pettinaro. (D.I. 164 at 9). However, at some unknown time, the lag hook system was replaced with an L-bracket system. (D.I. 155 at 8). When properly attached, the L-bracket system secured the balcony rail with four L-brackets, two on each side of the railing. Id.

On the day of the accident Ms. Mack's brother, Mr. Jahmal Mack, removed the railing from the wall so that furniture could be moved out of the apartment. (D.I. 139 at 13). After removing the railing, the railing was placed in one of the two bedrooms on the upper floor. Id. Once the furniture was moved, the railing was replaced; however, it is unknown whether or not the railing was attached to the wall at the time that the Plaintiff fell. Id. at 8.

LEGAL STANDARD

"The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party has the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuinely disputed material fact relative to the claims in question. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986). Material facts are those "that could affect the outcome" of the proceeding, and "a dispute about a material fact is genuine' if the evidence is sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Lamont v. New Jersey, 637 F.3d 177, 181 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). The burden on the moving party may be discharged by demonstrating that there is an absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's case. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325.

The burden then shifts to the non-movant to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989). A non-moving party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed must support such an assertion by: "(A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations..., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials; or (B) showing that the materials cited [by the opposing party] do not establish the absence... of a genuine dispute...." FED. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1).

When determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007); Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). A dispute is "genuine" only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-49. If the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of its case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322.

"Under Delaware law, to prevail on a claim of negligence, a plaintiff must prove (1) that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, (2) that the defendant breached that duty, (3) and that the plaintiffs injury was proximately caused by the breach of that duty." Halchuck v. Williams, 635 F.Supp.2d 344, 346 (D. Del. 2009).

ANALYSIS

Mr. and Mrs. Bowman

Mr. and Mrs. Bowman ("Bowman Defendants") argue that their Motion for Summary Judgment should be granted for two reasons: (1) that they owed no duty of care to the Plaintiff and (2) that they were not the proximate cause of the Plaintiff's accident.

Duty of Care

Legal Standard

Delaware law requires that landlords "[p]rovide a rental unit which shall not endanger the health, welfare or safety of the tenants or occupants and which is fit for the purpose for which it is expressly rented, " and that landlords "[m]ake all repairs and arrangements necessary to put and keep the rental unit and the appurtenances thereto in as good a condition as they were, or ought by law or agreement to have been, at the commencement of the tenancy...." 25 Del. Code ยง 53050)(2) & (4). However, a landlord that lacks both possession and control of the leased property is generally not liable to injuries of third-parties for "physical harm caused by any dangerous condition which comes into existence after the lessee has taken possession." Volkswagen of Am., Inc. v. Costello, 880 A.2d 230, 233 (Del. 2005) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted and emphasis added). Thus, "the duty of the landlord is to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition, and to undertake any repairs necessary to achieve that end. Thus, if a landlord can be found to have breached this duty and an injury found to have resulted as a proximate cause of that breach, liability may ensue." Powell v. Megee, 2004 WL 249589 at *2 (Del. Super. Jan. 23, 2004) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

Delaware law defines a landlord to be:

a. The owner, lessor or sublessor of the rental unit or the property of which it is a part and, in addition, shall mean any person authorized to exercise any aspect of the management of the premises, including any person who, directly or indirectly, receives rents or any part thereof other than as a bona fide purchaser and ...

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