In a published decision, New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a wrongful death and survival lawsuit in the matter of The Estate of Frank A. Campagna, et al. v. Pleasant Point Properties, et al. (A-2989-18T1) (App. Div. June 17, 2020), holding that a “rooming house,” as that term is defined under New Jersey law, owes no duty to conduct background checks on prospective residents.
The lawsuit arose out of the fatal stabbing of the decedent, Frank Campagna, by a tenant of the rooming house, Anthony Strong. That rooming house, known as “Pleasant Point Properties,” was licensed by the State of New Jersey pursuant to the “Rooming and Boarding House Act of 1979 (“the RHBA”). This Act requires that every rooming or boarding house have an “operator,” licensed by the State, who resides on the premises and is responsible for the rooming house’s daily operations. In the event that an operator resigns or becomes unable to discharge their obligations, then the “primary owner” is deemed by the RHBA to be the operator until a new operator is appointed.
The Pleasant Point Properties rooming house had an operator from 2011 through August of 2015. That individual left the role, and there was an issue of fact as to when the next operator took over. There was evidence that a new operator began in September of 2015, although that operator was not licensed by the Department of Community Affairs until November. In July or August of 2015, the individual who killed the decedent, Frank Campagna, submitted a rental application. That individual – named Anthony Strong – had a relationship with one of the house’s residents, and had been a frequent visitor for some six months. After receiving the application, the house’s owner provided a key to Strong and allowed him to move into the rooming house in September of 2015. The owner never interviewed Strong, inquire into his rental history, employment history, medical history, or background. No criminal background check was conducted. On October 7, 2015, Strong killed Campagna, and later pleaded guilty to murder.
Campagna’s wrongful death and survival lawsuit alleged negligence, gross negligence, and violations of the RHBA and a related regulation. The assailant and murderer, Strong, was impleaded as a third-party defendant. Plaintiff retained a liability expert, who opined that the RBHA had been violated because it did not have a licensed operator on October 7, 2015. Moreover, the rooming house violated record-keeping regulations. Ultimately, the expert opined that the defendants’ failure to conduct a criminal background search on Strong demonstrated a “lack of care or concern for the protection of current residents from a potentially unscrupulous new neighbor.”
After the trial court dismissed the suit on summary judgment, appeal followed. The Appellate Division affirmed in a published opinion, determining that the issues related to the claimed legal duty in the case were novel.The Court ultimately determined that neither the RBHA nor regulations created pursuant to it required that a background check be conducted before renting a room to a tenant. Although the statute and regulations did “emphasize that resident safety is a paramount overall objective,” no regulation specified that rooming house owners must conduct background checks. The Court then reviewed the common law factors as to whether a duty would otherwise be imposed. Distinguishing cases dealing with landlords’ duties to tenants, the Appellate Division noted that in the case at hand, the murder did not take place in a common area where a duty of security may be owed. Moreover, there was no indication that there was anything wrong with the decedent’s door or lock, and there was no evidence that there was any forced entry into the decedent’s apartment. In other words, it appears as though the decedent allowed his killer into the apartment room. Defendants furthermore received no complaints or safety concerns about Strong. Finding that fundamental fairness did not require the imposition of a duty on the defendants, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the suit, and held that rooming house operators owe no duty to conduct criminal background checks on prospective residents.
For more information on this decision, please feel free to contact MKCI’s Tom Emala.