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Miller v. Christian

filed: March 23, 1992.

MELITA MILLER, APPELLEE
v.
ALLAN A. CHRISTIAN, APPELLANT



Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands. Appellate Division, St. Croix. (D.C. Civil Action No. 90-00086)

Present: Stapleton, Hutchinson and Nygaard, Circuit Judges

Author: Hutchinson

Opinion OF THE COURT

HUTCHINSON, Circuit Judge.

I.

Appellant, Allan A. Christian (Christian), is appellee Melita Miller's (Miller) former landlord. He appeals an order of the Appellate Division of the District Court of the Virgin Islands affirming a judgment of the small claims division of the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands*fn1 for $450.00 in Miller's favor. The territorial court based the $450.00 damage award on its finding that personal property Miller owned was injured when a chronically faulty sewage system serving the leased premises backed up and overflowed into her apartment. It held in a bench trial that Christian was liable to Miller despite a finding that Christian's immediate efforts to remedy the sewage problem were reasonable. After the territorial court entered judgment for Miller, Christian filed a timely appeal to the appellate division of the district court and, after that court affirmed the territorial court's judgment, Christian filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.

Christian contends the territorial court's finding that he acted reasonably to fix the immediate sewage problem by August 4, 1989 precludes liability. He also argues that the evidence presented by Miller was insufficient to place a dollar value on the injury to Miller's personal property. We disagree. Christian is liable to his tenant Miller under governing principles of the Restatement (Second) of Property. They impose liability for damages to a tenant's personal property caused by a dangerous condition resulting from either a landlord's breach of an implied warranty of habitability or his unreasonable failure to correct a condition that violates local housing regulations. While the territorial court found Christian's August 4, 1989 efforts to correct the immediate sewage problem that damaged Miller's property may have been reasonable, it also impliedly found the recurrent nature of the sewage problem was caused by his unreasonable failure to correct a chronic violation of the local housing code or a breach of his implied warranty of habitability. Accordingly, Miller can recover from her landlord Christian for the property damage she suffered in this case. Therefore, since Christian's argument that Miller's evidence on damages was speculative lacks merit, we will affirm the order of the district court.

II.

Miller, with her children and grandchildren, lived in a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment she rented from Christian. There was no written lease, and Miller was a month-to-month tenant. See V.I. Code Ann. tit. 28, §§ 241, 242 (1975) (oral leases of duration less than one year permissible). On August 2, 1989, a plumbing problem caused Miller's bathtub to back up and release sewage into her apartment. This was not the first time sewage had backed up in the tub in Miller's apartment. Christian was aware of the recurrent problem and had temporarily fixed it on prior occasions. This time Christian was notified on the same day it happened. Almost at once he tried to get in touch with several plumbers in an effort to get the problem fixed. He was not at first successful. As a result, the problem persisted for a day or two. In the meantime, fetid material from the blocked system had overflowed the tub and percolated from the bathroom into a bedroom in Miller's apartment. There, it damaged some of Miller's clothing, linens and bedding. Some bedding and clothing were also damaged when Miller used them to soak up the overflow in an effort to reduce the danger and nuisance the percolating filth and its stench posed to her and the children who occupied the apartment with her. Finally, after the efforts of several plumbers, the sewage problem was fixed on August 4, 1989.

The territorial court rejected Christian's contention that he was not liable because he had done everything reasonably possible to correct the sewage problem. Specifically, it found:

I find from the testimony that this had been an ongoing problem. It had been reported and had been fixed before. I also find that the defendant made reasonable efforts to repair the problem on this occasion in August of 1989. But that he is, nevertheless, liable for the damages which the plaintiff sustained as a result of the sewage backup.

Appellant's Appendix (App.) at 36.

III.

We have jurisdiction over Christian's appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C.A. § 1291 (West Supp. 1991). The district court had jurisdiction over Christian's appeal from the judgment of the territorial court under V.I. Code Ann. tit. 4, § 33 (Supp. 1990).

Whether Virgin Islands law allows a tenant of residential premises to recover damages for injury to personal property caused by a recurring problem that adversely affects the use of an apartment for residential purposes is a legal question over which we exercise plenary review. See Universal Minerals, Inc. v. C.A. Hughes & Co., 669 F.2d 98, 102-03 (3d Cir. 1981). We review the district court's factual findings under the clearly erroneous standard. See Allegheny Int'l, Inc. v. Snyder, No. 90-3400, 1992 W.L. 6533 at *5 (3d Cir. Jan. 21, 1992). Thus, we apply the same standard as the district court in reviewing the judgment against Christian. See Semper v. Santos, 845 F.2d 1233, 1235 (3d Cir. 1988).

IV.

On liability, Christian contends the territorial court's finding that his efforts to correct the sewage problem between August 2-4, 1989 were reasonable precludes judgment against him. Specifically, he argues that the district court erred in concluding that the judgment of the territorial court is not contrary to its finding that he "made reasonable efforts to repair the problem" on that date. App. at 36. Since the parties had no written lease expressly stating Christian's obligations to Miller, his duties to her are those which all landlords owe their tenants. Christian says that a Virgin Islands landlord, in the absence of negligence, is not liable to his or her tenant for failure to make repairs unless there is a ...


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