Homeowners Displaced by Negligence Can Seek Damages for Inconvenience as Well as For Direct Harm

Certain Underwriters at Lloyds Subscribing to Policy PLH-0013397 v. Public Service Electric and Gas, 459 N.J. Super. 436 (App. Div. 2019). Judge Fisher’s opinion in this appeal today was barely longer than the title and the caption of this case. The issue was whether, “when a defendant’s negligence has caused a homeowner to be displaced … whether [the] homeowner’s damages are limited to the cost of alternate shelter or whether the homeowner may also seek additional damages based on a broader concept of inconvenience.”

The case arose out of a winter storm that caused one of defendant’s high-voltage power lines to fall and set fire to plaintiffs’ homes. As a result of that incident, plaintiffs were displaced from their homes for ten months.

Plaintiffs’ homeowners insurers paid them for the cost of repairs to their homes, the expenses related to motel stays during the displacement, and other forms of conventional damages. Plaintiffs sued PSE&G, and a jury, in a proceeding that was bifurcated between liability and damages, found PSE&G liable.

PSE&G then won summary judgment on damages, with the trial court finding that plaintiffs had been fully compensated by their insurers. But as Judge Fisher noted, plaintiffs also sought “damages for the loss of use of their property or their inconvenience.” The Law Division rejected those claims, but today the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the damage issue for trial.

Judge Fisher relied on Camaraza v. Bellavia Buick Corp., 216 N.J. Super. 263 (App. Div. 1987). That case held that the plaintiff, whose automobile was stolen while being repaired by the defendant, and who did not rent a substitute vehicle, “could pursue a claim for his inconvenience, which would include damages not only for the loss of the vehicle’s use during the reasonable time needed for repairs, but also for the owner’s exclusion from normal recreational pursuits or [diminished] enjoyment of those pursuits proximately caused by the defendant” (citations omitted).

The panel today expanded that the principle of that case, that property owners “may be damaged by more than just repair costs when unable to make use of their property,” beyond motor vehicles to real property. “[T]he mere fact that plaintiffs were provided motel rooms and reimbursed meal and transportation costs by their insurance carriers did not foreclose their right to seek other damages resulting from the loss of the use of their homes or any other reasonable damages caused by the inconvenience. Damages in such circumstances are not limited to pecuniary losses which are capable of precise measurement”

.Judge Fisher distinguished the key case that PSE&G relied on, Muise v. GPU, Inc., 371 N.J. Super. 13 (App. Div. 2004), a class action matter. [Disclosure: I argued that case for the plaintiffs]. There, the Appellate Division partially decertified a class and stated that “damages based on class members’ loss of use or inconvenience because of a power outage were dependent … on their individual circumstances.” That case merely addressed considerations of individual versus common issues in a class action, but actually “reinforced,” Judge Fisher said, the Camaraza idea that “damages based on loss of use or inconvenience are largely unique to the plaintiff and ultimately turn on the factfinder’s view of each plaintiff’s circumstances.”

Whether plaintiffs would prevail on all, some, or none of their claimed damages was for the jury to decide. But the Appellate Division took a logical step in applying Camaraza as it did.