A landlord brought a holdover proceeding against a tenant who was arrested and charged with the crime of reckless endangerment. NYPD observed the tenant, acting alone, setting fire to clothing piled in the apartment’s bathtub. The tenant lit the fire and let it burn, with the nearby gas oven and stove both turned on.
The housing court judge, in her infinite wisdom, dismissed the landlord’s case. Why? Because the landlord picked the wrong legal theory to support eviction. The landlord claimed that the tenant, by creating a situation that could have caused an explosion or burned down the building, created a nuisance.
The judge said that recklessly setting your apartment on fire is not a nuisance because in order to prove a nuisance, you must prove a series of bad or inappropriate acts. One incident, no matter how stupid or dangerous on the tenant’s part, does not a nuisance prove.
According to this judge, the landlord screwed up by claiming nuisance when he should have claimed that the tenant breached a substantial obligation of the lease by committing an affirmative act of waste.
In New York civil practice, there is a general rule holding that when you file a legal complaint, the facts are the most important thing, rather than the “legal theory” you apply to those facts. For example, if you file a complaint claiming that the defendant deliberately made false statements to you about something important, and if you are specific about the what, when, who and where of the matter, then most courts will say that your complaint makes out a claim of fraud – even if you don’t identify your claim as one for fraud.
Not so for this Manhattan housing court judge, who apparently is willing to let tenants get away with setting fires in their apartments with gas ovens and stoves burning away.
Apartment owners and residents beware, and make sure your fire and tenant’s insurance is paid up.