California Court of Appeal Finds Plaintiffs Failed to Show Unsafe Condition and Landlord Duty Regarding Water Heater Temperature Responsible for Burns

In a recent opinion, a California Court of Appeal analyzed whether a lower court properly dismissed a plaintiff’s allegations of negligence concerning a landlord’s failure to discover the high temperature of the water heater and reduce that temperature. The plaintiffs claimed that their expert testimony had been limited, resulting in prejudice, and that the trial court failed to provide a jury instruction on the duty owed by a property owner to inspect and repair.

Susana Petikyan was scalded by the hot water in the shower of her mother’s rented apartment, owned by Elk St. Properties.  At the time of the incident, Susana stepped into the shower and turned on just the hot water, and it scalded her within 15 seconds. The apartment was part of a 13-apartment complex and had a single water heater.  It was unclear what the temperature of the water was at the time it scalded Susana.  One expert opined it may have been between 130 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, while another measured the water at 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Susana and her mother Zina, as plaintiffs, sued Elk St. Properties and the owner of these properties, David Karlin, for negligence based on premises liability, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. A jury found that the defendants were not negligent. The plaintiffs appealed.

First, the plaintiffs alleged on appeal that their expert testimony was improperly limited. The appellate court stated the rule that before a person offers expert testimony, the trial court must find that his opinion is related to a subject beyond common experience, that it would assist the trier of fact, that the opinion is based on personal knowledge, and that the person is qualified because he has special skill or training.

The appellate court stated that here, the plaintiffs wanted their civil engineer to testify as to the standard of care that applies to apartment managers.  But the court stated there is no special standard, and even if there had been, the expert was not qualified to testify as to this standard.   The expert here had no expertise on the standard of care for apartment managers.

Next, the court turned to the plaintiffs’ allegation that the trial court should have allowed the jury instruction on the failure to inspect. The court had instructed the jury on the elements of premises liability, a property owner’s duty of care to discover and repair anything that could harm others, the general definition of negligence, and a property owner’s duty to discover a condition on the property that creates an unreasonable risk of harm.

The trial court had held that the instruction on a property owner’s duty to discover unsafe conditions did not apply to this case because the evidence did not show there was an unsafe condition, and the defendants did not receive complaints that there was a problem with the water delivery system.

The court stated that the trial court properly declined to instruct the jury on both the duty to discover unsafe conditions and the duty to inspect.  The plaintiffs had alleged that the “unsafe condition” was the high level of water temperature in the apartment’s water delivery system.  But there had been no evidence regarding a landlord’s special duty to discover high water temperatures, or to inspect water heaters in an apartment complex’s water delivery system.

Finally, the court stated that omitting this jury instruction did not prejudice the verdict.  The jury had been instructed that a property owner has a basic duty to discover unsafe conditions and repair or replace them.  Since the plaintiffs had alleged that the defendants were negligent in not discovering that the water was at a high temperature and reducing the temperature, these instructions sufficiently encompassed their theory of the case.

At Sharifi Firm, our Southern California car accident attorneys provide personalized, efficient representation to injured individuals pursuing claims for compensation. We offer a no-obligation, free consultation and can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Rejects Sanctions Against Defendant in Personal Injury Lawsuit Because Second Summary Judgment Motion was not “Objectively Unreasonable”, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, June 27, 2016

California Appellate Court Reverses Dismissal of Injury Lawsuit Because Plaintiff’s Failure to Cooperate with Discovery Was Not Shown to be Willful, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, May 19, 2016

Contact Information