Who Is to Blame for Common Area Accidents?
Q: An elevator repair person injured himself while working on one of the elevators in the common area of the condo building I manage. He’s threatening to sue our board of managers, as well as the company that previously owned the building before it was recorded as a condominium, and 200 individual unit owners. What are some factors that could determine which defendant is held liable for the accident?
A: Control is one of the key factors in a case where a worker suffers an injury at a property. The crux of a recent New York case that’s similar to yours was whether the board of managers or another entity or individual unit owners—or all three groups—were liable. Here’s how the court made its decision.
Control Is Key Element
A New York trial court decided that the company that originally owned a condo building and the individual unit owners were off the hook for an injury suffered by a worker who fell from a scaffold in the boiler room that was a common element of the condominium building. Rather, the board of managers was liable because it “exercised exclusive control” over the building’s common elements and it contracted for the renovations wherein the worker’s incident occurred, determined the court.
A limited liability company had acquired the building by a deed recorded several years earlier. Several months after the deed was recorded, the company made the building subject to the Condominium Act by executing and filing a declaration of condominium. The declaration defines the common elements of the condominium to include the building’s boiler room. This meant that, as a common element of the condominium, the boiler room was, at the time of the worker’s accident, owned collectively by all of the owners of the building’s 130 units. However, the conversion of the building to a condominium placed its common elements “solely under the control of the condominium’s board of managers” pursuant to the Condominium Act, which “recognizes that the board exercises exclusive control over the common elements,” said the court.
“In keeping with the vesting of exclusive control of a condominium’s common elements in the board of managers, it is well established that a claim arising from the condition or operation of the common elements does not lie against the owners of the individual units,” said the court. Nor should a condo conversion-sponsoring entity that did not own or control the premises where the accident occurred be liable. “The proper defendant on such a claim is the board of managers,” the court held.
The court noted that in past decisions, it had held that a statute imposing obligations or liabilities upon the “owner” of real property does not give rise to a claim against the owners of individual condominium units where the claim arises from the common elements or concerns a duty not connected with any individual unit. “Here, it is the board of managers, not the company or individual unit owners, that entered into the contract for the lobby renovation project in the course of which the worker was injured,” said the court.
Party That Retains Power Stays on Hook
The company still retained ownership of some units in the building, but the court didn’t feel that the continued ownership of certain units at the time of the accident would affect its entitlement to dismissal from the lawsuit. “It is true that each unit owner—including the sponsor of the condominium conversion, to the extent it retains ownership of unsold units—owns an undivided fractional interest in the real property comprising the condominium’s common elements, however, our precedents make clear that a unit owner’s ownership interest in the condominium’s common elements does not give rise to liability, whether for common-law negligence or under the Labor Law, because the condominium declaration transfers complete and exclusive control of the common elements to the board of managers,” said the court.
In essence, the unit owners, though they collectively own the common elements, are divested of the powers and responsibilities of ownership with respect to those elements. Those powers and responsibilities are vested in the board of managers, which becomes the proper defendant on any claim, whether common law or statutory, that lies against the owner of the common elements, the court concluded [Jerdonek v. 41 W. 72 LLC, July 2016].