OGDEN -- The Utah Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a group of tenants who claimed owners of an Ogden apartment complex were negligent in connection with a 2005 arson that resulted in property damages and injuries.
A dozen tenants sued apartment complex owner Canyon Cove Properties LLC and Apartment Management Consultants. A Nov. 9, 2005, arson at the complex killed one woman and displaced the tenants of at least 21 apartments. Some of the tenants suffered injuries and property damage.
The tenants contended in a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages that Canyon Cove and AMC were negligent because they failed to:
* Warn residents that the building did not contain fire blocking.
* Take any measures to reduce or eliminate fire hazards.
* Have a functional alarm system.
* Have security at the premises.
* Remove a couch from a stairwell that served as the ignition for the fire.
* Provide adequate access to firefighters.
Canyon Cove and AMC filed a motion for summary judgment in 2nd District Court on the grounds they were released from liability arising from fire and arson because the tenants had signed an agreement that contained an exculpatory clause.
The 2nd District Court concluded that the tenants' claims of negligence were barred because the exculpatory clause is valid and enforceable.
The tenants appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, arguing that the district court's ruling violates Utah's public policy of encouraging landlords to act with care.
"They (the landlords) control the property," said Peter W. Summerill, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the tenants. "Whoever has control has responsibility (to provide safety)."
The Supreme Court said in its decision, the tenants presented a plausible claim that the exculpatory clause is unenforceable, while Canyon Cove and AMC failed to address the tenants' arguments. As a result, the Supreme Court refused to address the merits of the tenants' claim but reversed the district court's ruling.
"Without adequate briefing from AMC in response to tenant arguments, we are not comfortable addressing the merits of the broader questions of whether exculpatory clauses in residential leases violate public policy or whether they fall within the public interest exception," the ruling says. "Without adequate briefing, we have insufficient information to make a ruling that would affect countless landlords and tenants throughout Utah. Accordingly, because of AMC's inadequate briefing of the issue raised by tenants, we reject AMC's brief."
The case was remanded to 2nd District Court where it will be settled or reset for trial, said Summerill.