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Devine v. MHC Waterford Estates, L.L.C.

Superior Court of Delaware

October 10, 2017

LAWRENCE J. DEVINE, Plaintiff,
v.
MHC WATERFORD ESTATES, L.L.C. and MHC OPERATING LIMITED PARTNERSHIP Defendants.

          Submitted: September 18, 2017

         Upon Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment: Denied.

          Joseph J. Rhoades, Esquire, and Stephen T. Morrow, Esquire, of RHOADES & MORROW LLC, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Lawrence J. Devine.

          Kelly E. Rowe, Esquire, of REILLY, JANICZEK, MCDEVITT, HENRICH & CHOLDEN, P.C., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Waterford Estates, L.L.C.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          LEGROW, J.

         Plaintiff Lawrence Devine, a resident of Waterford Estates mobile home park, alleges Waterford management acted negligently and breached a rental agreement by failing to fix a stagnant water problem on his property. Devine contends the accumulated water froze and he slipped and fell on his icy sidewalk, resulting in multiple injuries. MHC Waterford Estates, L.L.C. and MHC Operating Limited Partnership (collectively "Defendants"), however, contend the ice on which Devine slipped formed as a result of a snow storm and was unrelated to the stagnant water problem.

         In this motion, Defendants seek summary judgment on all of Devine's claims. The motion presents two primary issues: (1) does Devine's contract with Waterford bar his negligence claim, or is there an independent statutory or common law duty of a landlord to correct the condition at issue here; and (2) may the Court determine as a matter of law that Devine's claims are barred by acquiescence, lack of notice, or assumption of risk. As set forth below, Devine's negligence claim may proceed, notwithstanding the contract, and disputed factual issues preclude any judgment on the basis of the acquiescence, notice, or assumption of risk defenses Defendants raise.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The following facts are drawn from the complaint and the record presented by the parties, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Devine, who is the non-moving party, and resolving disputed factual issues in Devine's favor. Beginning in 2008, Lawrence Devine owned or occasionally occupied 420 Ranee Loop, in Bear, Delaware, part of the Waterford Estates mobile home park.[1]Defendants manage the mobile home park and lease lots to mobile home owners like Devine. From the time he moved in, Devine notice the yard continually was saturated by water.[2] During summer time, Devine complained the ground was so saturated that a lawn chair would sink in the mud if sat upon.[3] The saturation continued during the winter months.[4]

         On multiple occasions, Devine called and visited the rental office to ask Defendants' management "if something could be done to correct the problem."[5]Devine and his late mother, who also lived at 420 Ranee Loop, attended a meeting with a Waterford Estates representative to discuss the issue, but management never followed up after their meeting.[6] Beginning in 2012, every time Devine took his rent check to the rental office he would ask management "when do you plan on fixing this?"[7] Despite Devine's continued complaints, Defendants' management never addressed the water saturation on the lot. Another resident, Henry Young, explained that Defendants' management was "sort of slow at taking care of business."[8]

         On January 21, 2014, approximately twelve inches of snow fell in Bear. On January 22, 2014, Devine began shoveling the snow off his handicap ramp, making his way down to the sidewalk outside his home.[9] When Devine reached the sidewalk, he encountered a thick layer of ice on the sidewalk under the snow. After clearing the snow from the sidewalk, Devine began spreading rock salt along the sidewalk in order to provide traction for himself and any visitors to the home.[10]Because the ground along the sidewalk was so saturated, Devine was forced to stand on the sidewalk while he spread the rock salt.

         As Devine placed his foot on the sidewalk, he slipped and fell on the ice, suffering multiple neck and back injuries.[11] Devine later filed this action claiming: (1) Defendants negligently failed to correct the stagnant water, which then froze and proximately caused Devine's injuries; (2) Defendants breached the rental agreement by failing to regrade the lot in order to prevent saturation; and (3) Defendants breached their "contractual duty of fair dealing" in connection to fixing the water saturation.[12] Defendants filed the pending motion for summary judgment on July 28, 2017. Devine filed his response on August 25, 2017. In his response, Devine withdrew the breach of duty of fair dealing claim. The Court heard argument on the pending motion on September 18, 2017.

         ANALYSIS

         Summary judgment should be awarded if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."[13] When considering a motion for summary judgment, the evidence and the inferences drawn from the evidence are to be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[14] The Court will accept "as established all undisputed factual assertions . . . and accept the non-movant's version of any disputed facts. From those accepted facts[, ] the [C]ourt will draw all rational inferences which favor the non-moving party."[15] A party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists.[16] If the movant makes such a showing, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to submit sufficient evidence to show that a genuine factual issue, material to the outcome of the case, precludes judgment before trial.[17]

         Defendants seek summary judgment on Devine's negligence claim on the basis that it is precluded by law because the parties' relationship is governed by a contract-the rental agreement. Second, Defendants argue Devine's breach of contract claim is estopped by Devine's acquiescence to the stagnant water problem. Even if Devine's claims survive those arguments, Defendants contend those claims are barred because Devine failed to establish that Defendants had any notice of the icy condition that caused the injury, or because Devine assumed the risk of injury by stepping onto the icy sidewalk to clear the snow. In my view, disputed issues of fact preclude summary judgment on all claims except the fair dealing claim already withdrawn by Devine.

         I. The parties' contract does not preclude Devine's negligence claim.

         Defendants argue that Devine cannot maintain his action in tort because "under Delaware law, where an action is based entirely on a breach of terms of a contract between the parties, and not in violation of an independent duty imposed by law, a plaintiff must sue in contract and not in tort."[18] Defendants argue that any duty Defendants arguably owed Devine arose solely from the parties' rental agreement. The relevant law provides otherwise.

         Under common law, a landlord's failure to maintain premises in a reasonably safe condition is sufficient to prove ordinary negligence.[19] This long- established duty provides an independent basis for Devine's negligence claim.[20] In addition, 25 Del. C. § 7006(a)(13)a., which is part of the Manufactured Homeowners and Community Owners Act (the "Act"), imposes a statutory duty on landlords to "[m]aintain and regrade the lot area where necessary and in good faith to prevent the accumulation of stagnant water thereon and to prevent the detrimental effects of moving water."[21] Although one purpose of Section 7006 is to prescribe mandatory provisions for rental agreements, this Court has held the section also imposes an independent duty to regrade the property when necessary.[22]

         The interpretation of Section 7006 as creating a statutory duty independent of the parties' contract is consistent with Section 7001, which describes the Act's purpose and policies. Section 7001 provides "[t]his subchapter must be liberally construed and applied to promote its underlying purpose and policies, which are: . . . to clarify and establish . . . the rights and obligations of manufactured community owners (landlords), manufactured home owners (tenants), and residents of manufactured home communities ..."[23]

         In view of the independent duties Defendants owed Devine under common law and the Act, I conclude Devine's action is not based entirely on the terms of the rental ...


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