Negligance: New Haverford Partnership
Plaintiff 1 is Elizabeth Stroot, a 33 year old graduate student who has suffered from allergies and asthma since childhood. Stroot was a tenant at Haverford apartments. Plaintiff 2 is Joletta Watson, friend and roommate of Elizabeth Stroot and a tenant of Haverford apartments from 1990 to 1994. Defendant is New Haverford Partnership, the owner of Haverford apartments.
In August 1992, Elizabeth Stroot and a roommate, Joletta Watson, moved into an apartment on the third floor of Haverford Place. (Case Law) While living in this apartment with Watson, Stroot immediately discovered mold around the windows and bathroom. Upon this discovery, Stroot attempted to remove the mold with bleach, however, the mold keep returning. In addition to the mold, Stroot also discovered leaks in her bedroom ceiling and in the kitchen and bathroom sinks. About a year later, in September 1993, Stroot’s roommate, Watson, moved out and Stroot moved into a one bedroom apartment in a different building within Haverford Place. After moving in, Stroot discovered that the bathroom ceiling in the new apartment also leaked. After living there for a few months, the leaks had caused holes in the drywall and there was a black substance covering the edges of the holes. Whenever the shower was on in the apartment above Stroot’s, black water ran out of the holes. Stroot informed management and some efforts were made to fix the upstairs shower. No repairs were made in Stroot’s apartment. The landlord stated that “the problem was caused by the upstairs tenants taking “sloppy” showers.” A few months later, on May 6 1994, Stroot called emergency maintenance because the hold in her bathroom ceiling was expanding and had become very large. It was no longer just a leak; she stated it was “raining”. Maintenance came to inspect her apartment and said that they would fix her apartment once the problem in the upstairs apartment was resolved. Ten days later, on May 16, 1994, Stroot’s bathroom ceiling collapsed and her bathroom floor flooded with water from the ceiling. The now exposed ceiling and also the debris from the drywall were covered with black, green, orange, and white mold. Stroot stated that the room was filled with a strong and nauseating odor. Again, Stroot called emergency maintenance and they stated that they could not do anything until the following morning. Once morning came, Stroot could not breathe. Stroot contacted her doctor and he recommended that she get an ambulance and go to the hospital. After being released from the hospital that day, Stroot made the decision that she could no longer live at Haverford Place. Due to her suffering from allergies and asthma since childhood, while living at Haverford Place, Stroot was forced to go to the emergency room seven times from asthma attacks. Also, she had spent a total of nine days as an inpatient where she received intravenous steroids twelve times. Stroot incurred medical expense in the amount of $28,000. Stroot sued New Haverford Partnership to recover damages for their negligence in permitting the water leaks and mold to persist in her apartment for the cause of her medical issues. While Watson lived at Haverford Place, during the years of 1990 to 1994, she experienced many of the same issues as Stroot had in her apartment. During the first few years of Watson’s residency at Haverford Place, she traveled frequently and was not home that often. However, the pipe under her sink burst and her kitchen was flooded with hot water. Maintenance did fix this pipe but the cabinets remained damaged by the water. She also had water issues in her bathroom. There was a gap in her tub between the tiles and the tub. Behind this gap was rotten drywall. Black mold was living behind the toilet, around the sink, on the ceiling and the windows were coated with a gummy substance. Watson attempted to remove the mold several times and it would continue to return. In 1993, Watson no longer traveled and was home more. During this time, Watson started to experience health problems. These problems included frequent headaches, sinus issues, chest pains, body aches, and fatigue. Watson went to he doctor and obtained medicine, however, she did not feel any better until she was no longer living at Haverford Place, six months later. Watson had developed an allergy to Penicillium and suffered from permanent upper respiratory problems due to her exposure to the mold.
The plaintiffs, Stroot and Watson, brought the appeal on three theories of tort liability: 1. Ordinary or common law negligence based on Landlord’s alleged failure to maintain safe and sanitary conditions in the apartments,
2. Negligence based on alleged violations of the New Castle County Code 3, 3. Negligence based on alleged violations of the Landlord Tenant Code. The jury of the trial courts found in favor of the plaintiffs on all three forms of negligence. The plaintiffs also offered testimony from several expert witnesses. The first expert witness is Dr. Yang, a mycologist and microbiologist. After inspecting Haverford Place, he stated that there was excessive and atypical mold growth in the apartment buildings caused by long term leaks. He opined the widespread mold contamination posed a health risk to tenants. The next, Dr. Johnanning, a physician board-certified in environmental and occupational medicine, also inspected and noted similar data from Haverford Place. He took blood samples from the plaintiffs and after analysis, he opined there was a high concentration of toxic mold at Haverford Place and this significantly and permanently increase the severity of Stroot’s asthma. He also stated that Watson developed an allergy to Penicillium and suffered from permanent upper respiratory problems as a result to her exposure to the mold. Dr. Gordon, a neuropsychologist, another expert witness, studied the mental defects associated with the atypical molds. He evaluated Stroot and came to the conclusion that she suffers from significant cognitive impairment in the areas of attention, concentration, memory and executive functions. He opined these problems were permanent and were a result of her exposure to the mold. Dr. Rose, a physician board certified in pulmonary, occupational and environmental medicine also examined Stroot and opined that she had developed osteopenia as a result of her steroid use while living at Haverford Place. The last expert witness, Michael Lynn, an architect and partner in real estate due diligence firm performed a limited property condition assessment at Haverford Place. He opined that the deferred maintenance on the buildings was excessive and the landlord’s failure to maintain the property was the proximate cause of the unhealthy and unsanitary conditions observed. The jury awarded Stroot $1,000,000 for personal injuries and $5,000 for property damage. Watson was awarded $40,000 for personal injuries. Both Watson and Stroot’s awards were reduced by 22% for their level of contributory negligence.
Was New Haverford Partnership liable for negligence? Were the expert witness’s testimonies reliable? Is the amount of the damage awards appropriate? Were the plaintiff’s partially at fault due to their own negligence?
The landlord filed an appeal to the trial court’s outcome with claims of error in the plaintiffs allegations of the three causes of action in tort liability of the landlord, the opinions of the expert witness were deficient in several respects, and that the amounts awarded to Stroot and Watson were excessive. The Supreme Court held that New Haverford Partnership was negligent and the amounts awarded to Stroot and Watson was supported. The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Stroot and Watson Reasoning
There was no error found in the trial court’s decision to allow the plaintiffs to pursue an ordinary, or common law, negligence claim and the jury found the landlord negligent due to failure to maintain the property allowing for unsafe and unsanitary living conditions and breaching the Landlord Tenant Code. The landlord owed the tenants a duty of care and the landlord breached that duty and due and the breach was the proximate cause of the tenant’s injuries. The court finds that the experts’ opinions were within the realm of scientific reliability and that the trial court acted with their realm of discretion in allowing them. In Delaware, the presumption is that a jury verdict is “correct and just.” The court has the authority to grant a new trial if it believes that the verdict was based upon “passion, partiality, prejudice, mistake, or misapprehension on the part of the jury.” It also states that a verdict will not be set aside unless it is “so grossly excessive as to show the Court’s conscience and sense of justice; and unless the injustice of allowing the verdict is clear.” Therefore, given the permanent nature of the Plaintiff’s injuries as well as the physical and emotional suffering that Stroot and Watson will have to endure the remainder of their lives, the court does not find the amount of damage awards to be unreasonable.
Critical Legal Thinking – What is negligence? Do you think the landlord was negligent in this case?
Negligence is the failure to take proper care in doing something. Yes, the landlord was negligent in this case. They were aware of the major water leaks and mold issues and did not do anything to attempt to resolve the issues. With knowing the condition of the apartment buildings, they are required as a landlord to make the proper repairs to insure the buildings have safe and sanitary living conditions for their tenants. They were also aware of these conditions for at least four years. Business Ethics – Did New Haverford Partnership act ethically in this case? Do you think Stroot was partially at fault in this case? No, I do not think New Haverford Partnership acted ethically in this case. Their appeal arguing that the were not negligent, that the expert witnesses didn’t have valid cases and that the damage awards were excessive goes to show that they do not have any sympathy for the damages they have caused and also that they are not responsible for the damages. However, I do believe Stroot is partially at fault. She continued to live at the apartments after she was aware of the conditions. She knew her health was at risk after her first visit to the Emergency Room. She ended up going an additional six times. Contemporary Business – Do you think the award of damages in this case was appropriate? Why or Why not? I agree with the court’s decision in the amount of award of damages. Stroot and Watson both will have to suffer from mental and physical issues for the remainder of their lives due to the exposure to the mold. They will have recurring medical expenses due to these issues and the amount of the award will allow for payment of their future medical expenses and for personal damages. I do agree with the court’s decision to reduce their awards by 22% for their own negligence. Watson and Stroot both lived in Haverford place for multiple years and were well aware of the issues and condition of the buildings. They chose to continue to live there even after the negligence of the landlord was well known after they did not repair the multiple issues they called in. Also, Stroot had to go to the emergency room seven times before she decided not to live at Haverford Place.
Cheeseman, Henry. Business Law: Legal Environment, Online Commerce, Business Ethics, and International Issues, 7th Edition. Pearson Learning Solutions. (Pg 772-773).
New Haverford Partnerships v. Stroot and Watson, No. 549, 1999. Retrieved from http://courts.state.de.us/