Delaware: Supreme Court of Delaware Affirms Summary Judgment
February 17, 2015

Darnell Hynson v. Burnbrae Maintenance Association, Supreme Court Case No. 117, 2014

On January 21, 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court, following oral argument that day, affirmed summary judgment in favor of Burnbrae Maintenance Association, Rawle & Henderson’s client in Hynson v. Burnbrae Maintenance Association on the basis of the decision in the trial court.  This case concerned the duties owed by the Association, which owned and maintained the common area at a development consisting of both townhouse and apartment-style condominiums.  An apartment-style condominium was owned by a co-defendant who rented to a tenant.  Plaintiff and a friend were social guests of the tenant and had left to get dinner.  When they returned, plaintiff observed an attempted robbery and intervened.  He was shot multiple times in the ensuing struggle.  The alleged assailant was later arrested but acquitted at trial.  The assailant was also named as a co-defendant in the civil case, and a default judgment was entered for his failure to enter an appearance.

During discovery in the trial court, it was determined that a significant number of the condominium units were not occupied by the owners, but were rented to tenants.  Sometimes this resulted in a change in the owner’s personal situation, but other owners used the condominiums as investment properties.  The estimate of tenant occupied units was thought to be as high as 60%.

The issue to be determined by the Court was the duty owed by the Association to protect social guests of tenants from the foreseeable harm while they were on the premises.

In prior cases, the Superior Court had ruled in the case of rental apartments that the duties to a business invitee existed on the landlord for injuries which occurred to social guests of tenants in the parking lot reasoning “it would be difficult if not impossible for a landlord to lease an apartment with the stipulation that the lessee was prohibited from inviting any people whatsoever to that apartment regardless of the purpose of the visit.”  Hoksch v. Strafford Apartments, Inc., 283 A.2d 687 (Del. Super. 1971).

Subsequently, the Superior Court had ruled in the case of a mixed use condominium with businesses on the first floor and residences on the floor above, that a person injured in the parking lot while intending to visit one of the residential units occupied by the owner, also was owed a similar duty by the condominium association as its business invitee.  Koons v. Sea Colony Inc., 1997 WL524085 (Del. Super. 1997).

Discovery in Hynson had established, however, that all of the units at Burnbrae were occupied as residences.  There were no businesses.  There was no office for the property manager nor were there any employees of the property manager present on a daily basis.

Delaware has adopted a statute providing:

no person who enters onto private residential or farm premises owned or occupied by another person, either as a guest without payment or as a trespasser, shall have a cause of action against the owner or occupier of such premises for any injuries or damages sustained by such person while on the premises unless those acts were intentional on the part of the owner or occupier or was caused by the willful or wanton disregard of the rights of others.

25 Del. C. §1501.

The Superior Court in Hynson ruled that while plaintiff was a business invitee of the owner of the condominium unit, he was not a business invitee of the Association.  The other unit owners were not attempting to attract social guests of the co-owners to receive an economic or business benefit for themselves.  Since plaintiff was a guest without payment under the statute, or a licensee under the common law, the Association’s only duty was to refrain from willful or wanton conduct towards plaintiff and there were no allegations of such conduct.

At oral argument before the Supreme Court, the Justices noted that its decision would have a broad ranging effect since it would apply throughout the State to residential condominiums, both those which allowed owners to lease to tenants and those which prohibited such leasing in the condominium documents.

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