A Property Owner Is Absolved Of Liability For Fire Damage To A Neighbor’s Property Caused By A Criminal Arson

In Wakil v. Birdie Properties, LLC, No. 2018-C-1674 (Lehigh County September 11, 2019), the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County recently granted a defendant’s motion for summary judgment in a case involving purported arson and subsequent fire damage.  Plaintiff alleged that his property was damaged by a fire that had originated in the back of a rowhome owned by the defendant.  The plaintiff then filed a lawsuit seeking damages for the happening of the fire and resulting damage.

Prior to the fire, the defendant’s tenants regularly kept trash and debris in the backyard.  In May 2017, the defendant received a property maintenance violation from the city for the accumulation of trash and debris.  The fire was ultimately started by an unknown arsonist who set fire to two old mattresses in the defendant’s backyard.  Plaintiff denied any knowledge of anyone starting fires in the neighborhood and denied calling police about any strangers around their home.

The defendant moved for summary judgment arguing 1) the plaintiff failed to establish that the defendant was the proximate cause of the fire; 2) the defendant was not liable for intervening acts of the unknown arsonist; and 3) the plaintiff’s harm was not reasonably foreseeable.  The plaintiff argued that the defendant should have been aware that the condition of its property might avail a third-party the opportunity to commit a crime.  Additionally, the plaintiff argued that the defendant was negligent per se due to the violation it received in May 2017 regarding the excess trash and debris on the property.  The plaintiff argued that the facts created a jury question and the summary judgment should be denied.

The Court ultimately granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.  The Court held that the defendant’s actions were not the proximate cause of the fire and that the harm suffered by the plaintiff was not reasonably foreseeable.  Specifically, the Court found no evidence to conclude that the defendant’s property fell into such a state of disrepair as to create a risk of criminal activity.  The Court concluded that it was not reasonably foreseeable that an arsonist would start a fire simply because of a mattress in the defendant’s backyard.  Last, the Court found that the plaintiff’s negligence per se argument was not viable as the defendant received a violation for property maintenance, not a fire safety violation.

In this particular case, a court found that a defendant was not responsible for a fire that started on its property.  The defendant had a legitimate defense in this case as it did not start the fire, nor did the court find that the property was in such distress as to provoke criminal activity. However, this case does open the door in finding liability against a landowner under certain circumstances.  While the court did not find this particular property was in such bad shape, it does not create an automatic defense for any property owner.  A property in worse condition with more trash and debris could open the door for liability against the property owner due to criminal activity.  This holding does not absolve all property owners of criminal activity conducted on the property if the property is in such condition as to avail itself to criminal activity.

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