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N'Jai v. Bentz

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 22, 2016

JACQUELYN B. N'JAI, Plaintiff,


          Nora Barry Fischer, United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Jacquelyn B. N'Jai (“Plaintiff”) initiated this civil action on August 22, 2013 against her former landlords, Gary and Connie Bentz, and their real estate company, C.A. Bentz LLC (“Defendants”). In the operative complaint, [1] Plaintiff asserted common law claims based on negligence (Count I), negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count II), private nuisance (Count V), breach of contract (Count VI), and breach of the implied warranty of habitability (Count VII). She also asserted federal claims pursuant to the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4852d (Count III), and the Toxic Substances Control Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2619(a)(1)-(2) (Count IV).

         Presently pending before the Court are Motions for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant C.A. Bentz, LLC (Docket No. 267) and Defendants Gary and Connie Bentz (Docket No. 277), as well as a Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff (Docket No. 285).

         For the reasons set forth below, Defendants Gary and Connie Bentz's Motion for Summary Judgment will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part; Defendant CA Bentz, LLC's Motion for Summary Judgment will be GRANTED; and Plaintiff's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment will be DENIED.

         II. Factual Background

         From 2008 through 2012, Plaintiff rented and resided in an apartment owned by the Defendants and located at 226 East End Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Docket No. 11 at ¶¶ 1, 3). During her time in the apartment, Plaintiff complained that she frequently observed water discharging from a broken drainpipe into the apartment, creating a severe mold infestation. (Id. at ¶ 5-6; Docket No. 113 at ¶¶ 27, 40-41, 51). She also complained that the walls in the apartment contained mold and lead paint. (Id. at ¶¶ 1b-4, 6b, 17, 20). Finally, she objected to repairs performed by Gary Bentz on or about July 24, 2012, characterized by the Plaintiff as “unlawful renovations, ” that caused lead and mold dust to permeate throughout the apartment. (Docket No. 11 at ¶¶ 8-15).

         Based on her alleged exposure to lead and mold, Plaintiff asserts that she suffered severe cramping of her toes, spasms in her extremities, burning in her eyes, choking and gagging, and uncontrollable coughing. (Docket No. 11 at ¶¶ 21-22). Plaintiff was also forced to move into a hotel and utilize a storage unit until she could find another apartment. (Id. at ¶ 29).

         In the meantime, Plaintiff contacted the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) through a hotline and was allegedly informed that Bentz's actions were in violation of federal environmental laws. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25, 27). The EPA investigated and issued a Notice of Noncompliance finding that Gary Bentz had violated the disclosure requirements of the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act by failing to inform tenants of the possibility of lead-based paint in the apartment, as is required for any residential unit built prior to 1978. (Docket No. 291-2).

         III. Procedural History

         Plaintiff initiated the instant action on August 22, 2013. (Docket No. 1). She filed an Amended Complaint on September 4, 2013 (Docket No. 3) and a Second Amended Complaint on October 23, 2013. (Docket No. 11). In addition to her common law claims against the Bentz Defendants, Plaintiff asserted several federal claims against the EPA and EPA Agent Annie Hoyt. (Id.). On June 3, 2014, the Court dismissed the EPA and Hoyt from this action with prejudice. (Docket No. 63).

         On September 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Motion to Amend Complaint, seeking to add several new common law and federal claims against the Bentz Defendants. (Docket No. 96). The Court granted the motion on November 20, 2014, granting Plaintiff leave to add claims based on the Residential Lead-Paint Hazard Reduction Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and common law claims of private nuisance, breach of contract, and breach of the implied warranty of habitability. (Docket No. 111).

         Plaintiff filed her Third Amended Complaint on December 11, 2014. (Docket No. 113). Following a period of discovery, Defendants filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Docket No. 156). On September 1, 2015, the Court granted the motion in part and dismissed Plaintiff's claim based on the Toxic Substances Control Act (Count IV). The remaining claims form the basis for the instant Motions for Summary Judgment.

         IV. Legal Standards

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Pursuant to Rule 56, the Court must enter summary judgment against the party “who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A motion for summary judgment will only be denied when there is a genuine issue of material fact, i.e., if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. McGreevy v. Stroup, 413 F.3d 359, 363 (3d Cir. 2005). The mere existence of some disputed facts is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). As to materiality, “only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         In determining whether the dispute is genuine, the court's function is not to weigh the evidence, to determine the truth of the matter, or to evaluate credibility. The court is only to determine whether the evidence of record is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. McGreevy, 413 F.3d at 363; Simpson v. Kay Jewelers, 142 F.3d 639, 643 n.3 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Fuentes v. Perski, 32 F.3d 759, 762 n.1 (3d Cir. 1994)). In evaluating the evidence, the court must interpret the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor. Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 147 (3d Cir. 2007).

         V. Discussion

         In their summary judgment motion, Defendants Gary and Connie Bentz contend that each of Plaintiff's allegations must be dismissed because she has failed to support any of her allegations by producing required expert reports. Each of her claims will be discussed in turn.

         A. Negligence (Count I)

         In order to prevail on a claim for negligence in Pennsylvania, Plaintiff must establish the following elements: (1) a duty or obligation recognized by the law, requiring the actor to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (2) a failure to conform to the standard required; (3) a causal connection between the conduct and the resulting injury; and (4) actual loss or damage resulting to the interests of another. Lichtenstein v. Kidder, Peabody & Co., 840 F.Supp. 374; 386 (W.D. Pa. 1993); Morena v. South Hills Health Sys., 462 A.2d 680, 684 n. 5 (Pa. 1983). Defendants contend that Plaintiff cannot satisfy either the third or fourth elements of her negligence claim.

         In toxic tort cases, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the substance at issue “is capable of causing the alleged harm (general causation) and that the substance actually caused the injury suffered by the plaintiff (specific causation).” Leake v. U.S., 843 F.Supp.2d 554, 559 (E.D. Pa. 2011); In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 35 F.3d 717, 752 (3d Cir. 1994) (plaintiff must show “that they were exposed to the chemicals . . ., that these chemicals can cause the type of harm they suffered, and that the chemicals in fact did cause them harm.”). This is typically accomplished by introducing expert testimony and scientific evidence. Heller v. Shaw Indus., Inc., 167 F.3d 146, 153 (3d Cir. 1999) (holding that the testimony of expert witnesses was required to demonstrate both that the level of a harmful chemical in plaintiff's home was higher than normal and that exposure to that chemical made him sick); Allen v. Pa. Engineering Corp., 102 F.3d 194, 199 (5th Cir. 1996) (“Scientific knowledge of the harmful level of exposure to a chemical, plus knowledge that the plaintiff was exposed to such quantities, are minimal facts necessary to sustain the plaintiffs' burden in a toxic tort case.”); In re Dobrowsky, 735 F.2d 90, 93 (3d Cir. 1984) (expert testimony is required where the injury and the cause are not “obvious, natural, or probable”).

         Plaintiff concedes that, for various reasons, she has been unable to engage an expert witness to testify on her behalf. Docket No. 287 at 2-4. Instead, she contends that she can proceed to trial by introducing her own testimony about her injuries and allergies:

Plaintiff is fully capable of testifying about the injuries named, and pictures, videos, factual data, medical records and the like are in abundance and within the scope of common knowledge of a laymen like her or a jury.

Id. at 1.

         She also contends that the link between the substances in her apartment and her allergies is common knowledge that lies within the scope of any layperson:

Plaintiff [does] not need an expert to tell her that she did or did not have an allergic reaction to the dust [Gary Bentz] and his helper caused to be air borne and then swept into [an] air vent. It is within common knowledge that Plaintiff knows what she is allergic to and her medical ...

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