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Dutcher v. Owens

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs Ted and Christine Owens leased a condominium from Defendant Dutcher, who owned the condominium and a pro rata portion of the common area of 1.572%. A fire which started in a light fixture in the common area destroyed Plaintiffs’ property and Plaintiffs filed suit against Dutcher, The Eastridge Terrace Condominium Association, Joe Hill Electric Company, HIS-8 Ltd. (developer) and a class of co-owners of condominiums represented by officers of the homeowners’ association.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The liability of a condominium owner is limited to his pro rata interest in the regime as a whole, where such liability arises from those areas held in tenancy in common, this is a departure from ordinary tort law.

    Facts. Plaintiffs Ted and Christine Owens leased a condominium from Defendant Dutcher, who owned the condominium and a pro rata portion of the common area of 1.572%. A fire in the common area destroyed Plaintiffs’ property and Plaintiffs filed suit against Dutcher, The Eastridge Terrace Condominium Association, Joe Hill Electric Company, HIS-8 Ltd. (developer) and a class of co-owners of condominiums represented by officers of the homeowners’ association. The case was tried by a jury and the jury found that, 1. The lack of an insulating box behind the light in the exterior wall space was the proximate cause of the fire. 2. The homeowners’ association knew of the defect. 3. The homeowners’ association alone was negligent in failing to install an insulating box with knowledge of the defect. 4. The negligence of the homeowners’ association resulted in damage to the Owens’ property in the amount of $69,150.00. The trial court, pursuant to the jurys’ findings, rendered judgment against Du
    tcher for $1,087.04, which is the amount of the total damages multiplied by Dutcher’s percentage of ownership in the common area of 1.572% pro rata undivided. The intermediate appellate court reversed the trial court as to computation of damages and held that “each unit owner, as a tenant in common with all other unit owners in the common elements, is jointly and severally liable for damage claims arising in the common elements.” The case was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court for a determination.

    Issue. Is the proper measure for damages arising from negligence in a common area of a condominium to be that each co-tenant is jointly and severally liable or that each co-tenant is responsible for damages commensurate with their respective pro rata share of ownership?

    Held. The proper measure is pro rata share of ownership. Trial court judgment affirmed, intermediate court of appeals reversed.
    Under the Texas statutory scheme regarding condominiums, the owner of a condominium has a merger of two estates into one: the fee simple ownership of the apartment or unit and a tenancy in common with respect to the common areas of the condominium. The statute provides that “general common elements” are the land upon which the building stands, the foundations, bearing walls and columns, roofs, halls, lobbies, stairways, and entrances and exits or communication ways, and all other elements of the building desirable or rationally of common use or necessary to existence, upkeep and safety of the condominium regime. . . [citing Tex. Rev. Civ. Stat. Ann. Art. 1301a].
    Because of the unique nature of condominium ownership, the liability for injuries resulting from the management of condominium projects should reflect the degree of control exercised by the defendants. The Court cites a California case which held that to hold the defendants liable for control over common areas would be to ignore the realities of the situation in favor of theories (such as joint and several tort liability).
    The Court holds that although the Texas statutory scheme does not specifically address allocation of tort liability among condominium owners, it does provide for pro rata distribution of the ownership of common areas and make allowances for pro rata contribution for the maintenance and upkeep of such areas. The Court finds that two bills were submitted in the legislature during the debate on the statutory scheme regarding allocation of liability on a pro rata basis, which were voted down. However, this is not indicative of legislative intent because the statutory scheme is silent as to allocation of tort liability.
    The Court holds that because of the limited control of one unit owner in a condominium over the operation of common areas, the statutory scheme enacted does effect a reallocation of tort liability. The liability of a condominium owner is limited to his pro rata interest in the regime as a whole, where such liability arises from those areas held in tenancy in common, this is a departure from ordinary tort law.

    Discussion. This case provides an example of the way that common law principles do not always fit the emerging forms of ownership and relations between parties. The doctrine of joint and several liability would have created a harsh result in this case.


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