Does a building owner who voluntarily installs a fire alarm system need to comply with the provisions of the Uniform Fire Codes? A case in the state of New Jersey involved that question. 

The action was filed by the defendants’ neighbors who sued the defendant property owners, alleging that their negligence caused the delayed warning of a fire that destroyed the parties’ properties.

The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were negligent in failing to apply for a permit to install the fire alarm system and in failing to properly maintain it. The jury at the initial trial found that the defendants were negligent, but their negligence was not a proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ damages. The plaintiffs appealed. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case for a new trial, holding that the jury should have been instructed on the defendants’ nondelegable duty under the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code (N.J.A.C. 5:70-1.1) to maintain safe premises and that failure to obtain necessary permits and inspection of the fire alarm system as required by former Code provisions could be evidence of defendants’ breach of their nondelegable duty to assure the system was properly operating. The defendants appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Considerations of the Supreme Court

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in discussing the case, indicated that the New Jersey Uniform Fire Safety Act requires the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs to publicize regulations to ensure the maintenance and operation of buildings and equipment in such a manner as will provide a reasonable degree of safety from fire and explosion.

The defendants had hired a contracting company to install the fire alarm system, which included smoke and heat detectors and a fire alarm panel with a telephone line connected to a central station. The plaintiffs’ expert testified that the alarm system failed on the evening of the fire. Among other things, he testified that it was reasonable for the defendants to rely on the installing company to properly design the fire alarm system and to inform defendants of maintenance and code requirements for the system. 

The defendants’ expert testified that it was reasonable for defendants to rely on the installing company to advise them of any code standards or other requirements relating to installation of the system.  He also found that the system was appropriately designed and that a properly working system would not have activated at the initial stage of the fire due to the location of the fire’s origin. He further asserted that the defendants’ failure to obtain permits or have inspections did not cause the fire or contribute to its spread to plaintiffs’ building.

On appeal, the defendants claimed that the imposition of a nondelegable duty on volunteer land owners would serve to discourage future land owners from voluntarily undertaking useful improvements to their property; further claiming that public policy does not require the imposition of a nondelegable duty to obtain a permit or test a fire alarm system. 

The plaintiffs urged, that even though defendants were under no obligation to install the fire alarm system, their decision to do so carried with it obligations to the general public.  The defendants argued that they delegated the responsibility to install the fire alarm system to a licensed electrical contractor and the court should not impose a nondelegable duty upon them to obtain a permit and inspect the system, especially when they had no obligation to install the system in the first place. 

The Supreme Court agreed with the defendants’ position, stating that as a general rule and absent certain exceptions, one who engages an independent contractor is not liable for the negligence of that contractor in the performance of the contract.  The code did not require defendants to install a fire alarm system in their building, but the defendants were subject to certain code requirements once they elected to install the fire alarm system, including the obtaining of a permit and subjecting the system to annual inspections. However, the court pointed out that the original jury found that both the installing company and the defendants were negligent but that their negligence was not a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ damages. Therefore, even if the trial court was mistaken in its response to the jury’s question, the jury’s finding of no proximate cause rendered any error harmless.  Therefore the judgment of the Appellate Court was reversed and the original judgment of the jury reinstated.