By Jonathan H. Katz, Esq.

Hill Wallack LLP’s “Classic Condo Cases” is a continuing series in which we look back at precedential Court opinions and discuss why each decision is important for community associations throughout New Jersey.

Siddons v. Cook and Country Place Condominium Association, 382 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2005).

Quick Take: Community associations have a duty to warn owners of potential, recurring conditions/deficiencies that are known to the association and may cause damage, even if those conditions/deficiencies are solely within a unit/home and not part of the common elements.

Just the Facts: Sandra Siddons owned a downstairs condominium unit; David and Wendy Cook owned the unit directly above Siddons. Both units were part of the Country Place Condominium Association (the “Association”), located in Egg Harbor, NJ. Siddons sued the Cooks and the Association after her unit suffered water damage in excess of $25,000 as a result of a broken dishwasher hose in the Cooks’ unit. The Association was aware that dishwasher hoses in other condominium units (three, to be exact) had previously cracked/broken; however, since those hoses were the unit owner’s responsibility, the Association took the position that it had no responsibility to take any affirmative action to notify the other owners.

With respect to the claim against the Association, the trial court dismissed Siddons’ complaint, holding that the Association owed no duty to warn Siddons or the Cooks about the potential flooding hazard. Siddons appealed.

The Court’s Decision: On appeal, the Court held that while the Association had no duty to either inspect or maintain the personal property located in the Cook’s condominium unit, nonetheless, because the Association knew of the potentially dangerous condition occurring in other units, and because that condition was not open and obvious to the unit owners, the Association had a duty to act reasonably to warn the unit owners of the potential danger. In so deciding, the Appellate Division explained that because of the nature of the risk, the ability to exercise care, and the close relationship between an association and its owners, the Association was in the best position to notify the unit owners of the potentially dangerous condition. Having determined that a duty existed, the Appellate Division remanded the matter back to the trial court for a determination as to whether the Association breached the duty to warn and, if so, if the breach was the proximate cause of Siddons’ damages.

Interesting Side Note: The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s decision that the Cooks were not negligent and thus not responsible for the damages to Siddons’ unit. In order to prove negligence, Siddons needed to prove that the Cooks breached a duty of care; however, on this factual record, the Court could not find that the Cooks acted improperly, so there was no breach of their duty and, as such, no negligence.

Why It Matters: When this case was decided, it triggered quite a stir among community associations, especially older associations where busted hoses or failing water heaters sometimes occur with regularity. Many of those associations rushed to provide notice of everything that may go wrong within a unit, including dishwasher and washing machine hoses, water heaters, HVAC, etc., but the ultimate holding of the case is a simple one – if an association has reason to believe that a condition in one unit may reoccur in other units, the association should notify the unit owners of the potential of that condition so the owners can do their own investigation and take any necessary, corrective action. That simple warning will help unit owners protect their property, will help associations preserve their common elements, and may absolve the association from any future liability.

To read the Appellate Division’s decision in Siddons v. Cook and Country Place Condominium Association, please click here.

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