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Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors

Supreme Court of New Jersey

January 20, 1993, Argued ; June 16, 1993, Decided

A-71 September Term 1992

Opinion

 [*431]  [**1112]   This appeal requires the Court to determine whether a realestate broker who holds an "open house" for the purpose of attracting potential buyers has a duty of care with [***2]  respect to their safety, including a duty to warn of dangerous conditions in the home. The case arose when such a visitor, a relative of prospective purchasers, fell down during an open-house tour sponsored by the broker. The fall occurred when she proceeded down from one level of the house to another and missed a step, which she claimed constituted a dangerous condition because  [*432]  the connecting step was camouflaged by the similar floor that covered both levels.

The basic question to be answered by this appeal implicates a broader issue: whether a broker's duty of care in these circumstances is to be determined by the traditional common-law doctrine that defines the duty of care imposed on owners and possessors of land or, instead, by more general principles that govern tort liability.

On April 26, 1987, plaintiff, Emily Hopkins, accompanied her son and daughter-in-law to an open house in Plainsboro, New Jersey. The party had been invited by a salesperson employed by defendant broker, Fox & Lazo Realtors. The threesome entered the house. Initially, they were not greeted by a realtor. Consequently, they started to tour the premises on their own.

On entering the kitchen,  [***3]  Mrs. Hopkins and her family were greeted by a broker's representative. The realtor left them free to inspect the house unaccompanied. The kitchen of the house led up to a family room that was slightly elevated from the front portion of the house. On the same level as the family room were a powder room and laundry room. Mrs. Hopkins waited on the upper level in the family room, while her family viewed the patio and grounds.

When Mrs. Hopkins heard her son and daughter-in-law reenter, she attempted to join them in the foyer, where the staircase to the second floor was located. She proceeded down the hallway from the laundry room towards the foyer. She was unaware that a step led down from the hallway into the foyer. The floors on both levels and  [**1113]  the step were covered with the same pattern vinyl. According to Mrs. Hopkins, the use of the same floor covering on both levels camouflaged the presence of a step. Not anticipating the presence of a step, she lost her footing and fell, fracturing her right ankle.

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132 N.J. 426 *; 625 A.2d 1110 **; 1993 N.J. LEXIS 127 ***

EMILY S. HOPKINS, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, v. FOX & LAZO REALTORS, JACK BURKE REAL ESTATE, INC., STEPHEN FIELDS AND PAT GUERRY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND JOHN GARVER, SUSAN GARVER, HIS WIFE; U.S. HOME CORPORATION, MORGAN M. DAVIS, DOUGLAS M. SONIER AND BARBARA A. SONIER, HIS WIFE, DEFENDANTS

Prior History:  [***1]  On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 252 N.J. Super. 295 (1991).

Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 252 N.J. Super. 295, 599 A.2d 924, 1991 N.J. Super. LEXIS 449 (App.Div., 1991)

Disposition: The judgment of the Appellate Division reversing the dismissal of the complaint by the trial court and remanding the matter for trial is hereby affirmed.

CORE TERMS

broker, inspection, open-house, premises, warn, open house, homeowner, customer, visitors, real-estate, dangerous condition, duty of care, circumstances, invitation, invitees, common law, defects, parties, classifications, realtor, expert testimony, landowner, costs, public policy, licensee, floor, reasonable inspection, trespasser, courts, seller

Real Property Law, Torts, Trespass to Real Property, Torts, General Premises Liability, Dangerous Conditions, Artificial Conditions, Premises & Property Liability, General Overview, Duties of Care, Duty On Premises, Licensees, Trespassers, Elements, Duty, Foreseeability of Harm, Standards of Care, Reasonable Care, Environmental Law, Assessment & Information Access, Audits & Site Assessments, Duty to Inspect, Defenses, Independent Contractors, Brokers, Fiduciary Responsibilities, Discipline, Licensing & Regulation, Multiple Defendants, Contribution, Comparative Fault, Evidence, Admissibility, Expert Witnesses, Testimony, Expert Witnesses