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Leak in Apartment Constituted Breach of Contract, But Plaintiff Was Entitled to Only Nominal Damages

Eliza Parham v. CIH Properties, Inc., et al.
Case No. 14-cv-1613 (GMH) United States District Court for the District of Columbia

by Matthew J. McCloskey, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2014cv1613-52

In a recent opinion, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia concluded that, although Plaintiff proved a breach of the implied warranty of habitability, she had failed to adduce sufficient evidence to establish her actual damages. Accordingly, Plaintiff was entitled to only nominal damages.

Plaintiff resided in an apartment owned and managed by Defendants for nearly fifty (50) years. On September 8, 2011, Defendants were made aware of a leak in the apartment below Plaintiff’s apartment. When it was determined that the leak was coming from Plaintiff’s apartment, Defendants entered Plaintiff’s apartment and discovered that the ceiling in one of Plaintiff’s closets was damp and collapsing, and that numerous items in the closet were damp and covered in mildew and mold. Defendants subsequently determined that the source of the leak was a clogged downspout on the roof of the apartment building, and repaired the problem. Plaintiff experienced no further issues with leaks at the apartment.

Plaintiff later filed a lawsuit against Defendants, asserting that Defendants’ failure to ascertain and repair the leak constituted a breach of her lease agreement. At trial, Plaintiff sought to recover the value of the items that were damaged by the leak, which included numerous pieces of designer clothing, a set of formal glassware, an ivory china set, and several other “ordinary” items. Plaintiff provided the Court with estimated values for each of the items of property based upon her recollection alone. She did not introduce any receipts or any other type of evidence as to the value of the property. Plaintiff further alleged that “she was harmed because her apartment unit was uninhabitable on account of damp walls, mold, asbestos, and a leak” coming into her apartment as a result of the leak. Plaintiff adduced no evidence regarding the amount of her damages in this regard.

The Court held a one-day bench trial on Plaintiff’s claims. At the close of evidence, Plaintiff’s counsel conceded that Plaintiff had not met her burden to prove property damages, “but contended that trial should be permitted to proceed because [Plaintiff] could be awarded nominal damages.” The Court took the matter under advisement.

Judge G. Michael Harvey, writing for the Court, concluded that Plaintiff had established her claim for breach of contract, but determined that Plaintiff was only entitled to nominal damages. Initially, the Court noted that the District of Columbia recognizes that an implied warranty of habitability exists within the context of any lease. Under the implied warranty, landlords have a “continuing duty during the lease term to ‘exercise reasonable care to maintain rental premises in compliance with the [D.C.] housing code,’” and a landlord who fails to do so is amendable in a breach of contract action. Here, although Defendants argued that they cured the leak within a reasonable time of its discovery, the Court concluded that Defendants had constructive notice of the clogged downspout. Pertinently, the Court stated that “[i]n the exercise of reasonable care, Defendants could have become aware of the clogged downspout and gathering water that caused the leak” had they had a sufficiently attentive maintenance program. Accordingly, because Defendants had failed to ascertain and repair the leak prior to it damaging Plaintiff’s property, Defendants breached the implied warranty of habitability.

Nevertheless, the Court also concluded that Plaintiff had failed to prove actual damages. The Court noted that, in the District of Columbia, the testimony of an owner of unique, designer items is not sufficient to prove the fair market value of the destroyed item. Instead, the value of such items must be established by expert testimony. In this regard, the Court noted that Plaintiff’s counsel admitted that Plaintiff had not adduced sufficient testimony to establish the value of Plaintiff’s designer clothing, the formal glassware set, or the china set. Furthermore, with regard to the ordinary items damaged by the leak, although lay testimony is sufficient to establish the value of such items, the Court again concluded that Plaintiff failed to prove actual damages. Specifically, the Court found that Plaintiff was not a persuasive witness, provided inconsistent testimony as to the value of the items, and appeared to have little basis for the depreciation in value calculations she conducted for the items. Because Plaintiff had failed to establish a reasonable basis upon which to find the value of these items, she had failed to prove actual damages. Accordingly, Plaintiff was entitled to only nominal damages for Defendants’ breach of the implied warranty of habitability.


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