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Pennsylvania Superior Court Affirms “Absentee” Landlords Owed No Duty to Injured Guest

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To bring a claim of negligence, a plaintiff must first show that the defendant owed them a duty or obligation recognized by law. In a recent case, the Superior Court upheld the rule that a landlord owes no duty to tenants or third parties who are injured on the property, and especially when the landlord was not in possession and control of the property at the time of the incident.

In this case, three defendants held different ownership interests in a property located in Smethport, Pennsylvania. Two defendants, Brian Bell and Dawn Bell-Stryker, were title owners to the land, while Joyce Bell maintained a life estate. Brian Bell and Dawn Bell-Stryker had never resided at the property, while Joyce Bell-Stryker lived in the house for less than one year before relocating to New Hampshire.

Prior to the accident at issue, the tenant leasing the residence reported to Joyce Bell that the roof suffered damage in a high windstorm. Joyce Bell contacted her insurance agent and reported the damage, receiving $2,000 to repair the damage. The defendant asked her son, Brian Bell, to repair the roof and paid him the $2,000.  Months later, Brian Bell and an assistant asked a visitor to the home, Ryan Bodecker, to help them position a ladder during repairs to the roof. While he was assisting, the ladder contacted or came close to the power lines, and all three men sustained injuries from the electrical shock. Mr. Bodecker filed a complaint against defendants Joyce Bell, Dawn Bell-Stryker, and Brian Bell, alleging negligence. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and Mr. Bodecker appealed.

The Superior Court stated it would overturn the trial court’s entry of summary judgment if it found an error of law or abuse of discretion. The court turned to the elements of a negligence claim. First, the defendants must owe a duty to the plaintiff. The general rule is that landlords are not liable for injuries to tenants or third parties. Exceptions exist, the court made clear, but they rely on the landlord having possession and control of the land.

Here, the Superior Court found, neither Joyce Bell nor Dawn Bell-Stryker was in possession or control of the land. Bell-Stryker simply collected rent checks. Joyce Bell, on the other hand, was an absentee landlord, since she was not in possession of the property at the time of the accident. Neither woman had a duty to Mr. Bodecker.

The court noted that the “contracts to repair” exception exists, but in this case there was no evidence that the defendants were engaged in the repair of the roof. They were hundreds of miles away at the time and were not consulted during the repairs. The only evidence, the Superior Court held, connecting them to the accident is that they had title to the premises and were aware of the roof repairs being done by Brian Bell.

Truly, the court noted, Mr. Bodecker’s claim is that the defendants negligently hired Brian Bell as an independent contractor. But here, the Superior Court recited the findings of the trial court. No reasonable person could find that Joyce Bell negligently hired Brian Bell. He had helped her husband replace a roof, and it was a reasonable assumption that he could also repair a roof.

The Superior Court also held that Mr. Bodecker did not produce any evidence that Joyce Bell had a particular duty to protect him from harm. This might arise if Joyce Bell knew Brian Bell was hired to do especially dangerous work. But repairing a roof was not particularly dangerous, nor was it a complicated project, estimated at a cost of $2,000. Since Joyce Bell and Dawn Bell Stryker were far removed from the situation, they did not have a particular duty to protect Mr. Bodecker.

Finally, the Superior Court found Mr. Bodecker did not gather evidence to prove his allegations. He relied on his pleadings to defeat the defendants’ motion for summary judgment instead of deposing Brian Bell, or gathering other evidence to support his negligence theories. In other words, there was nothing that could go to the jury. The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment for the defendants.

Legally, a duty of care may be a challenge to prove in court in certain circumstances. The personal injury attorneys at Needle Law, P.C. bring years of experience representing injured clients and advocating for their legal rights. Contact our office for a free, confidential consultation at 570-344-1266.

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