Friday, May 9, 2008

Divorcing Spouse Not Liable for Husband Having Blown Up Marital Property

New Hampshire Ins. Co. a/s/o of Links Club, Inc. v. Bartha
(1st Dept., decided 5/8/2008)

Cordula and Nicholas Bartha were married in 1977 and purchased a townhouse on East 62nd Street in Manhattan for $395,000 in 1980. In a divorce proceeding commenced in 2001 (see Bartha v Bartha, 15 AD3d 111, [2005]), the trial court found that the townhouse, valued at $5 million in 2002, was marital property subject to equitable distribution.

Nicholas Bartha didn't like or accept that decision. So much so, that on or about July 10, 2006, he "set off an explosion on the premises that destroyed the building and caused fatal injuries to himself." Numerous lawsuits followed against Bartha's decedent's estate by individuals and entities seeking damages for injury to persons or property due to Bartha's wrongful conduct in blowing up the house. Plaintiff New Hampshire Insurance Company commenced this action on behalf of its insured, the Links Club, not only as against Bartha's estate but also as against Cordula Bartha and the couple's two daughters, one of whom had been appointed administrator of the estate, in their individual capacities.

In unanimously REVERSING the order of the motion court and dismissing the complaint for failure to state a cause of action, the First Department noted that Cordula Bartha had been divorced from Nicholas for several years at the time of the explosion and had not resided with him since October 2001. Neither she nor either of her two daughter had either authority to control the decedent's actions or a relationship with the Links Club that required them to protect it from the conduct of others. The appellate court rejected plaintiff New Hampshire's contention that the decision in the matrimonial action, which in effect made Cordula a co-owner of the townhouse, did not render her liable for Nicholas' conduct, noting that "'[iIndeed, her position was akin to that of an out-of-possession judgment creditor who neither maintained nor controlled the premises where an injury-causing event occurred[.]"

An inventive theory for a subrogation claim but ultimately nonviable.

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