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What is Reasonable Care to Maintain Heat?

Just a few weeks ago, a New York trial court weighed in regarding the question:  what is reasonable care to maintain heat?

The Saratoga county court in Zimmerman v. Leatherstocking Coop. Ins. Co., 2023 NY Slip Op 30314(U), ¶ 10 (Sup. Ct.), made an excellent example of the need to be factually exact in answering this question.  Because, after all, if there’s insufficient heat in a building, pipes may freeze.  Water will leak.  Property insurance claims will follow.  Many property policies condition recovery on the policyholder(s) taking reasonable care to maintain heat.  

The Zimmerman case is the most recent in a growing line of cases, from different jurisdictions, to discuss the conduct that does/doesn’t amount to reasonable care.  Dueling summary judgment motions were denied by the Zimmerman court where the record revealed material issues of fact about what a homeowner had done to maintain heat in an unoccupied property, listed for sale.  Zimmerman survived, but didn’t earn, summary judgment based on allegations related to his efforts to electronically control a boiler, visiting the property, a temperature setting of 55° Fahrenheit, all while putting a realtor in charge of watching the house as part of a “sales process.” Meanwhile, the involved insurer was refused summary judgment as well, despite its arguments that the homeowner failed to leave the thermostat at a temperature high enough to heat the pipes, to use an alarm to advise if the temperature dropped, or to adequately insulate the property.  The insurer further argued that the homeowner failed to use reasonable care to maintain heat because he also left the property unoccupied for over a month, knew (or should have known) that the heat was “uneven,” that parts of the house were drafty, that the seals on the windows were inadequate, and that supplemental heat was required in those sections of the house that were drafty/poorly insulated.  The insurer also added an argument that the utility bills demonstrated a lack of electricity and gas usage, and further cited to Plaintiff’s “past experience with freezing pipes and water damage in the various properties that he has owned,” all as proof of what reasonableness standard should have been met.

Despite these arguments and what this reader perceived as a well-developed record, the Zimmerman court refused summary judgment to either party.  The question, what is reasonable care to maintain heat, may have been best answered by a New Jersey federal court: “[t]he nature of coverage decisions, which must be made on a case by case basis, makes it impossible to define what constitutes ‘reasonable care’ in any one situation.”  See Dooley v. Scottsdale Ins. Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19140, at *18 (D.N.J. Feb. 18, 2015).  

As the 2023 winter takes its last swing at property owners and their insureds, the “reasonable care to maintain heat” cases tell all of us to stay warm because facts matter.