January 7, 2003
Re: Liability for private sprinkler systems
Your MTAS consultant has conveyed to me your questions about potential liability that could be imposed on the Town for certain deficiencies in private sprinkler systems that the Town is thinking of mandating by ordinance. In my opinion, it would be an unusual situation that would lead to liability for the Town in any of the situations you posit.
Your first question is whether there would be liability for the Town if the Town mandates the sprinklers and there is a fire and the sprinkler system fails. Under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (Tennessee Code Annotated, § 29-20-101, et seq.), liability for a municipality must be caused by the negligent actions of a municipal employee or by a defective public structure of which the municipality has either actual or constructive notice. Since a private sprinkler system is not a public structure, any municipal liability would have to be caused by the negligent act of an employee. Since the sprinkler system would be installed by a private contractor who should bear the major responsibility for seeing that the system works, at least initially, there is little to connect the Town with any liability in this situation. A claimant could argue that the Town was somehow negligent in its inspection of the sprinkler system and this caused injuries. T.C.A. § 29-20-205(4), however, preserves immunity for the Town for failing to inspect or making an inadequate inspection of property. Another claim that possibly could be made is that there was inadequate water pressure to make the sprinklers effective and that this was traceable to some negligent act of a municipal employee. Whether such a claim would stick would be a matter of proof but a successful claim would be unusual. The major liability in most situations should rest with the contractor who installed the system and with the owner for failing to maintain the system. Most courts could see that placing liability on the Town would discourage this and other attempts by municipalities to increase the safety of their residents.
Your next question is about potential liability when the sprinklers are in the walls but there is a fire in the attic. I assume there is a proposed provision in your ordinance that requires sprinklers in occupiable rooms but not in places like attics. I would also assume that there is no prohibition of sprinklers in the attic. If this is the case, then the decision whether to place sprinklers in the attic is solely up to the homeowner, and the Town should not be subjected to liability based upon the homeowner’s decision. There is also a rational basis for requiring sprinklers only in occupiable rooms. The main function of sprinklers is to save lives, and they are more likely to save lives in occupied areas. A secondary function is to save property, and the Town could reasonably have determined that the extra cost of putting sprinklers in generally unoccupied areas would be prohibitive for many homebuyers. Thus, in effect, the Town left this decision to the individual homeowner.
Your final question is about the homeowner’s failure to have the system inspected as required in the ordinance. In other words, would the Town be liable for failure to enforce its ordinance? See the American Law Reports article entitled “Municipal Liability for Negligent Fire Inspection and Subsequent Enforcement” in 69 A.L.R. 4th 739 (1989), for a review of American law that generally holds on different theories that municipalities are not liable for failure to enforce inspection ordinances. Specifically to Tennessee, my opinion is that such a requirement creates a public duty on the part of the Town to enforce the inspection requirement, but that no duty to an individual that would lead to liability would generally exist. See Ezell v. Cockrell, 902 S.W.2d 394 (Tenn. 1995), which holds that a duty to enforce the law generally runs to the public at large and failure to enforce the law will create liability to an individual only if a special relationship between the individual and the Town has been created. Matthews v. Pickett County, 996 S.W.2d 162 at 165 (Tenn. 1999), holds that a special relationship that could cause liability can be created in three (3) ways: (1) A public official affirmatively undertakes to protect an individual and the individual relies on this undertaking, (2) A statute creates a cause of action for injuries caused to a particular class of individuals, or (3) The plaintiff alleges intent, malice, or reckless misconduct. In most situations none of these factors will apply to create liability for the Town.
A possible avenue for imposing liability is recognized in a case involving inoperable fire hydrants, Hawks v. City of Westmoreland, 960 S.W. 2d 10 (Tenn. 1997). This case held the city liable when a fire destroyed a house because the fire hydrants did not work. Underground valves were closed, and the Court held that the city had constructive notice of this defect since it could have found the defect by inspection. You should note, however, that the water lines and hydrants in this case belonged to the city and not the homeowner, as with sprinklers. Nevertheless, if a sprinkler system failed to work because of a similar defect in the Town’s water line that the Town was either aware of or should have been, then it is likely liability would be imposed.
I hope this answers your questions. If we may be of further assistance on any matter, please contact us.