Evers v. FSF Overlake Associates

Decision Date20 May 2003
Docket NumberNo. 97470.,97470.
Citation2003 OK 53,77 P.3d 581
PartiesHeather V. EVERS and Derek Evers, Plaintiffs/Appellants, v. FSF OVERLAKE ASSOCIATES, an Oklahoma Limited Partnership; D.G.M. Overlake, Inc., a suspended Delaware Corporation; Trust Property Management, Inc., an unincorporated or unregistered association, Defendants/Appellees.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

John D. Mashburn, Oklahoma City, OK, for Plaintiffs/Appellants.

Gary S. Chilton and Heidi Jo Long, Oklahoma City, OK, for Defendants/Appellees.

BOUDREAU, J.

¶ 1 Heather and Derek Evers filed suit against the owners and managers of an apartment complex in Bethany, Oklahoma, as well as other unnamed defendants, who resided in the adjoining apartment during the operation of a methamphetamine drug lab. The Evers' petition alleges that in March 2000, they along with other tenants began to notice strong smells in and around the apartment building. Shortly thereafter, the Evers and other tenants began to complain about the smells to the management and owners of the apartment complex.

¶ 2 After the advent of fumes, Heather Evers claims she became ill with headaches, dizziness and a variety of debilitating symptoms, which eventually made it impossible for her to go to work and resulted in her spending even more time in the apartment. In May 2000, approximately two months after the initial complaints began, Heather says she once again complained to the apartment staff. In response, an apartment security officer was sent to investigate the origin of the smell. The security company officer believed the smell to be the result of illegal drug activity. The police raided the apartment adjoining the Evers' apartment and discovered a methamphetamine drug lab in the bathroom, which shared a wall and ventilation system with the Evers' apartment. After the police raid, the Evers terminated their lease.

¶ 3 In their petition, the Evers assert that the materials used to manufacture the methamphetamine are highly toxic and carcinogenic. The Evers allege the owners and management personnel of the complex knew or should have known of the dangerous condition posed by the illegal manufacture of drugs in the adjacent apartment and negligently failed to warn or protect the tenants of the danger. The Evers claim these failures resulted in Heather becoming very ill, with residual reproductive complications and increased risk of future illness, such as cancer.

¶ 4 Defendants, FSF Overlake Associates, D.G.M. Overlake, Inc. and Trust Property Management, moved for summary judgment. In their summary judgment motion, Defendants argued they owed no duty to the Evers to maintain an apartment community free from criminal activity and even if a duty was owed, the criminal acts of third parties caused the Evers harm and not any negligence on the part of the property managers or owners.

¶ 5 The trial court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs moved for a new trial. This motion was denied and Plaintiffs appealed. The Court of Civil Appeals, determined the Evers failed to provide sufficient evidence of injury and failed to adequately link any alleged injuries to exposure to methamphetamine or its components. As a result, the Court of Civil Appeals determined the trial court did not err in granting the summary judgment. The Evers sought certiorari to this Court, asserting that the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed Defendants' summary judgment based upon an issue not tried or raised at the court below, namely the extent and cause of the Evers' physical injuries.

I. Standard of Review

¶ 6 We note this case comes on appeal from Plaintiffs' motion for a new trial. The standard of review on appeal in examination of the trial court's denial of a new trial motion is abuse of discretion. Jones, Givens, Gotcher & Bogan v. Berger, 2002 OK 31, 46 P.3d 698, 701; Austin v. Cockings, 1994 OK 29, 871 P.2d 33, 34. However, in this case the propriety of the trial court's denial of the new trial motion rests on the correctness of the trial court's grant of summary judgment. Therefore, we must examine by de novo review the trial court's decision on summary judgment in order to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying the new trial motion. See Manley v. Brown, 1999 OK 79, 989 P.2d 448, 455.

II. Content of Defendants' Summary Judgment Motion

¶ 7 FSF Overlake Associates, D.G.M. Overlake, Inc. and Trust Property Management, Inc., the Defendants, owners and managers of the apartment complex, filed their motion for summary judgment arguing that 1) they owed no duty to the Evers to maintain a crime-free apartment environment, 2) even if they owed a duty, the Evers' injuries were caused by the intentional crimes of third parties, which was a supervening cause of any alleged injuries, and 3) they could not be liable for misrepresentation, because Plaintiffs did not rely on any allegedly false statements by any of the Defendants.

¶ 8 In support of this motion, Defendants set out the following "uncontroverted facts":

1. In May 2000, the Overlake Apartments, located at 7902 N.W. 21st Street in Bethany, Oklahoma, were owned by FSF Overlake Associates;

2. In May 2000, the Overlake Apartments were managed by Trust Property Management, Inc.;

3. The Plaintiffs resided in Unit E-20 at the Overlake Apartments from July 1999 through May 22, 2000;

4. Unit E-19, the apartment adjacent to Unit E-20, was raided by the Bethany Police on May 18, 2000, and an illegal methamphetamine laboratory was discovered;

5. The parties arrested in connection with the methamphetamine laboratory did not have prior criminal records;

6. Following the police raid, the plaintiffs immediately gave notice of termination of lease and moved from the Overlake Apartments;

7. After the police raid, the plaintiffs resided in a different apartment unit until they were able to physically move from the Overlake Apartment community;

8. Beginning December 1, 1999, at the latest, Overlake requested all residents to sign a "Lease Addendum for Drug-Free Housing".

III. Defendants' Motion Does Not Entitle Them to Judgment Through Summary Process

¶ 9 A motion for summary judgment is a request for an adjudication on the merits of the case. It is proper only when the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, admissions or other evidentiary materials establish that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the party moving for summary judgment is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Markwell v. Whinery's Real Estate, Inc., 1994 OK 24, 869 P.2d 840, 845. The moving party has the burden to show there is no substantial controversy as to any material fact. Bowers v. Wimberly, 1997 OK 24, 933 P.2d 312, 315. In demonstrating that no material fact exists, the moving party must present a concise written statement of the material facts as to which the movant contends no genuine issue exists. Rule 13, Rules for the District Courts of Oklahoma, 12 O.S.2001, Ch. 2, app. 1; Hadnot v. Shaw, 1992 OK 21, 826 P.2d 978, 984. The movant must attach to the statement copies of the acceptable evidentiary substitutes relied upon to support the motion. Finally, the movant must offer a statement of argument and authority demonstrating why the undisputed material facts entitle the movant to judgment as a matter of law. See Rule 13, Rules for the District Courts of Oklahoma, 12 O.S.2001, Ch. 2, app. 1. This burden exists whether or not any counter statement is filed by the non-moving party. Union Oil Co. v. Bd. of Equalization, 1996 OK 40, 913 P.2d 1330, 1334.1

¶ 10 In arguing they are entitled to summary judgment, Defendants assert that they owed no duty to the Evers to maintain a crime-free apartment environment. They contend that the obligation to keep a unit "safe" is not intended to make the landlord the guarantor of the tenant's safety and does not create an obligation on the landlord to insure against criminal attack.2 While a landlord does not guarantee tenant safety, a landlord who retains possession of a portion of the leased premises, for use in common with other tenants, must use reasonable care to keep that portion of the premises over which he has maintained control in a safe condition. See Staples v. Baty, 1952 OK 98, 206 Okla. 288, 242 P.2d 705, 707 (tenant injured when a common use staircase collapsed underneath her); see also Lay v. Dworman, 1986 OK 85, 732 P.2d 455, 459 (court rejected concept that the landlord/tenant relationship itself gives rise to a duty to guard the tenant's safety, but found landlord who failed to repair faulty lock was liable for injuries resulting from tenant's rape, because the tenant requested the lock be repaired and repair of the locks was in exclusive control of landlord).

¶ 11 In their petition, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants have retained control over a portion of the leased premises, specifically the ventilation system (heat and air), for use in common with other tenants. They claim that Defendants knew or should have known of a dangerous condition affecting the ventilation system posed by the manufacture of drugs in the adjacent apartment. They argue that Defendants breached their respective duties to use reasonable care to maintain the ventilation system by failing either to remove or to warn Plaintiffs of the dangerous condition posed by the system.

¶ 12 Whether a negligent defendant stands in such a relationship to a plaintiff that the law imposes upon the defendant an obligation of reasonable conduct for the benefit of the plaintiff is a question for the court. Wofford v. Eastern State Hosp., 1990 OK 77, 795 P.2d 516. In their petition, Plaintiffs have alleged specific facts, which if true, would give rise to a duty on the part of the Defendants. The statement of uncontroverted facts offered by the Defendants fails to offer any facts to counter the specific factual allegations made by the Plaintiffs. While the statement acknowledges the presence of criminal activity in...

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