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Child’s Severe Burns From Space Heater Do Not Result In Landlord Liability For Failed Heating System.

A landlord had a duty to provide heat to his tenant’s residence and knew that the furnace was broken. Yet, the landlord was held to have no liability when his tenant’s nine-year old granddaughter suffered extensive burns after her dress came in contact with a space heater being used to heat the home. Why? It was not reasonably foreseeable that the landlord’s breach of his duty to provide heat would result in burn injuries from a space heater.

The outcome in Robinson v. Willis, 2018 Ark. App. 542 (November 7, 2018) may seem harsh. Nonetheless, it is consistent with principles of tort law which have been in place in the State of Arkansas for many years. In the Robinson case, Brandy Robinson was staying with her grandmother, Barbara Robinson, on December 23, 2011 in a residence Ms. Robinson leased from landlords James Willis and Marion Starks. The heating system on the property did not work and Ms. Robinson was using space heaters to heat the home. Brandy’s dress caught fire when it came in contact with one of the space heaters, causing her to suffer extensive burns. Brandy’s mother filed suit against the landlords (as well as against the manufacturer and seller of the space heater). She claimed that the landlords breached their duty to provide heat by not fixing the broken furnace, causing the need to purchase space heaters, which then resulted in Brandy’s dress catching fire and causing serious burns.

The trial court granted a summary judgment in favor of the landlords and the Arkansas Court of Appeals affirmed. The case turned on the concept of foreseeability. Even though the landlords admitted that they had a duty to repair the heating system, and even though they acknowledged that it was foreseeable that their tenant might buy a space heater when the heating system did not work, the court stated, “It does not follow, however, that it was also foreseeable Barbara’s grandchild would suffer burn injuries from the use of such space heaters.” The Court emphasized that a defendant is under no duty to guard against risks it cannot reasonably foresee, saying “Harm that is merely possible is not necessarily reasonably foreseeable.” The Court explained that when the voluntary acts of human beings intervene between the defendant’s act and the plaintiff’s injury, the question is always: Was the third person’s conduct sufficiently foreseeable to make the defendant’s act a negligent one?” In this case, the court concluded that reasonable minds could not foresee that Brandy would suffer burn injuries from the use of a space heater.

Interestingly, although Arkansas cases often state that foreseeability is a question for the jury, not the court, to decide, the Robinson court did not allow the issue of foreseeability to go to a jury and instead decided the case as a matter of law. Thus, this case may now make it easier for defendants to have foreseeability issues determined by courts in summary judgment proceedings. You might wonder, “How was it not foreseeable that if the heat failed, the tenants would have to use alternative, inapt, and perhaps dangerous methods to avoid freezing to death?” But, that was the final decision of the Court and it stands as precedent for future decisions.

 

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