Q&A: Who's to Blame For Water Leak?

Q Who is responsible for a faulty faucet spindle inside the wall which caused a water leak inside the wall and which was unbeknownst to the shareholder but damaged the apartment below? My superintendent had to chip into the wall to remove the spindle in order to repair it.

---Dripping in Dumont

A “Disputes arising from water leaks are with increasing frequency resulting in costly lawsuits," says attorney Samuel J. McNulty, Esq., of Hueston McNulty, a law firm based in Florham Park. "These costs can be avoided with creative planning and action by an association board. In New Jersey, the answer of who is liable depends upon what form of ownership applies to the building, In the case of a condominium association, the master deed will include specific description of the units and the common elements. Generally speaking, plumbing which services multiple units will be deemed to be a common element and plumbing which serves a specific unit will be deemed to be the responsibility of the unit owner. The liability will follow the maintenance responsibility. In the case of a homeowners association the lot and the home belonged to the lot owner and the common areas and facilities are owned by the association. The answer to that question therefore would depend in a homeowners association in New Jersey on what the declaration stated was the maintenance responsibility of the association.

“In addition to addressing the question of direct responsibility for the losses caused by a leaking pipe, there may be a claim that the association should have warned its members of the problem. The New Jersey Appellate Division in a 2005 case however, expanded the duties of condominium associations in the circumstance of an association where dishwasher hoses were breaking and flooding other units. In Siddons v. Cook, 382 N.J.Super. 1 (App. Div. 2005) the plaintiff was a condominium unit owner whose unit was flooded when the dishwasher hose in a unit above hers broke. The condominium association was on notice of defective hoses in three other units prior to the flood. The appellate panel concluded that, under those circumstances, the condominium association had a duty to warn the unit owners of the potential flood hazard, despite the fact that the condominium association had no duty to maintain or repair the dishwasher hoses, because they were not common elements.

“Accordingly, for our clients located in older buildings where plumbing leaks are more frequent than in other newer construction, we recommend that the board proactively communicate with its members to advise them of their responsibilities. This includes circulating a maintenance chart of responsibilities and resolutions requiring unit owners to procure and maintain insurance policies covering the contents of their units. These policies will often have a liability component which will serve to protect the unit owner from claims for leaks affecting other owners. They also have the benefit of bringing insurance professionals into a claim early enough to allow appropriate investigation and adjustment. Even though the source of the leak in this situation is hidden behind a wall these problems are foreseeable and should be anticipated and handled by the association's board to reduce conflict among unit owners.” n

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